COVID: South Africa “returns to normal”

The pandemic was a distant memory on February 3 in Cape Town. Once a month, the downtown galleries, restaurants and shops open until late, turning the neighborhood into a huge pedestrian zone. “Friends told me there would be hardly any restrictions,” said German tourist Dominik Irschik. DW. He had just arrived in Cape Town. “But I didn’t expect that. The streets, bars and clubs are full of people – everyone is relaxed and living normally again. It’s great,” Irschik said.

On the other side of the Cape, life is also resuming its course in the township of Khayelitsha. Two years ago, financial problems and the pandemic forced Siphelo Jalivane to close his milk bar and restaurant. Now the place is packed for reopening. “COVID has taught us a lot of things. You have to put your eggs in different baskets,” Jalivane said. “I would like to stop hearing the name COVID,” added co-owner Mfundo Mbeki. “That’s what we want.”

Increase in tourist arrivals

After nearly two years, President Cyril Ramaphosa lifted most lockdown restrictions, including a curfew. As a result, tourists have started to flock to the country again. There had been massive travel cancellations following the discovery of the omicron variant. But the horror scenarios that some analysts had predicted did not unfold. The number of new infections may have increased rapidly, but hospitals have not been overwhelmed.

The fourth wave seems to be receding. Many South Africans hope this could mark the beginning of the end of the pandemic. New government regulations state that anyone without symptoms can effectively live their life as usual without testing or isolation requirements. Schools are also back to normal with no social distancing requirements.

Many infected before the discovery of Omicron

Scientists are also optimistic despite the low vaccination rate of only 28% of fully vaccinated South Africans. Epidemiologist Wolfgang Preiser said that even before the omicron wave, many South Africans were already infected with the coronavirus – according to antibody studies, around 70% of the population. Hospital data shows that previous infection or vaccination with the coronavirus protects against serious diseases, including the omicron variant. “If you get to a situation where almost everyone has had it or been vaccinated, you can relax,” said Preiser, who heads the department of medical virology at Stellenbosch University.

So should the rest of the world relax too? Not necessarily, Preiser said. South Africa‘s high infection rates in the past also mean that many vulnerable people have died from COVID-19. Comparing the situation to Europe, Preiser also warned of differences in weather, school holidays and previous infection rates. “That’s why you can’t just say: we expect things to go the way they did in South Africa.”

A pandemic that has become endemic

Preiser hopes the pandemic could become endemic like other coronaviruses if most of the population has baseline immunity to previous infection or vaccination. “I’m still hopeful that we can bypass the regular booster shots,” Preiser said. He could imagine that if everyone has elemental immunity – perhaps with a specific omicron booster – and another variant doesn’t arise as a nasty surprise, “we can maintain our immunity by natural means via regular reinfections by the coronavirus”.

No one wants to think about any other moves right now – not in Cape Town city center or at the Milk Restaurant and Bar in Khayelitsha. And certainly not the owner Siphelo Jalivana. It already has big plans for the post-pandemic and wants to expand to other cities. He thinks the outlook for business in South Africa is finally looking good again.

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