While the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines continues across the world bringing new hope, the tourism sector will still have to operate alongside the virus with the threat of a third wave on the horizon , says Tourism Minister Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane.
“Scientists are telling us the virus has a high likelihood of further mutations whose effects are unpredictable, placing the economic recovery efforts in serious risk,” Kubayi-Ngubane said.
However, Kubayi-Ngubane said scientists are expressing concerns that a third wave of COVID-19 infections may hit South Africa earlier than expected.
“If indeed the third wave hit us, the level of restrictions will have to be commensurate to the risk level. The conclusion to be drawn from all of this is that the tourism sector will, for some time, have to operate alongside the virus.
“It also means that the sector is possibly facing numerous stop/start cycles as restrictions are increased or eased in line with the risk adjusted approach that responds to the evolution of the virus,” Kubayi-Ngubane said.
The Minister was speaking during a webinar organised by Government Communications (GCIS) on Wednesday.
Kubayi-Ngubane said the stop/start cycles will continue to affect traveler confidence and place jobs and the survival of tourism firms at risk.
“They will further make the recovery highly uncertain. This means that flexibility as well as the adaptability of firms across the value chain will be critical in responding to the stop/start cycles.”
The recently published Quarterly Labour Force Survey for the fourth quarter of 2020, showed that South Africa’s unemployment rate increased to 32.5%.
Kubayi-Ngubane said by July last year, 30% restaurants could no longer reopen and the sector was facing a risk of losing close to 600 000 jobs.
“We started easing the restrictions by August, so that there was an impressive surge in economic activity in the third quarter,” Kubayi-Ngubane said.
She said manufacturing, trade and mining were the biggest drivers of growth in the third quarter.
“One of the subsectors that performed well during this period was the food and beverages. Spending on restaurants and hotels recorded a huge surge, however it was an impressive growth in a sector that was coming out of a very low base.
“What is evident is that the economy was on the road to recovery and we were starting to see green shoots in most sectors of the economy.”
Kubayi-Ngubane said scientists informed government about the new strain in mid-December and that it was spreading fast.
“Up until the advent of the 501Y.V2 variant, we had not envisaged that the virus could mutate in a way that can confound the effectiveness of vaccines that are already in the market,” the minister said.
Kubayi-Ngubane said by rendering the Astrazeneca vaccine ineffective, the new strain added further uncertainty to the efforts to contain the spread of the pandemic.
In addition, she said, the overall economic recovery depends on the capacity and commitment to the implementation of the country’s plans.
“Attention is being paid in ensuring that the right skills are deployed in the critical areas of the economy so that we are able to accelerate implementation.”
Also taking part in the webinar, Dr Mboneni Muofhe from the Department of Science and Innovation, said without genomic surveillance, responses to COVID-19 or any pandemic are synonymous to flying blind.
“Surveillance enables effective development and vaccination strategy. [It] enables the tracking of transmission dynamics locally, provincially, nationally and internationally,” Dr Muofhe said.
Dr Muofhe said genomic surveillance is a critical component of the epidemic response exemplified by early detection, characterization and tracking of this new 501Y.V2 variant within and outside South Africa.
Muofhe said there is a need for development of vaccines and improvements to be the order of the day.