Amid dropping COVID cases, South Africa loosens restrictions

JOHANNESBURG (AP) — With declining cases of COVID-19, South Africa’s president has announced that it is no longer mandatory to wear masks outdoors and vaccinated travelers entering the country are no longer required to produce a negative PCR tests.

The relaxed restrictions will also allow sports stadiums and musical venues to fill up to 50% of their capacity with people who are vaccinated or who present valid negative PCR tests.

South Africa has been hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic in Africa recording nearly 100,000 deaths and more than 3.7 million infections since the outbreak started in 2020. In recent weeks it has seen a significant drop in COVID-related deaths and severe illness.

Omicron was first identified in southern Africa in November driving a spike of the disease but now that wave has diminished and South Africa is in a period of low transmission, according to health experts.

President Cyril Ramaphosa said in a televised address Tuesday night that South Africa is changing the way it is managing the pandemic and “learning to live with the virus in our presence.”

He said that through vaccination or past infection, an estimated 60% to 80% of the country’s 60 million people have some sort of immunity to the virus.

“It means that we are opening our economy still further and that we are resuming many of the social and cultural activities that we have missed over the last two years,” said Ramaphosa.

He said the current regulations will remain in place when the country lifts the State of Disaster, the legal framework which has governed is COVID-19 pandemic response.

The government has been under pressure from various sectors to lift COVID-19 restrictions, which are blamed for the losses of 2 million jobs in a country with an unemployment rate of more than 34%.

South Africa’s biggest opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, has called on the government to lift all restrictions.

“Despite some welcome changes, the persisting rules will harm jobs and increase poverty while providing no benefit at all,” DA spokeswoman Siviwe Gwarube said in a statement.

The party also threatened court action to prevent the government from making the regulations permanent.

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