List of ‘high risk’ countries knock international tourism hopes

NOMPU SIZIBA: The South African government has excluded some 64 countries that it considers to be high risk in terms of the levels of Coronavirus infections in those countries, taking the precaution not to allow citizens from those countries to fly into this country. Just randomly, some of the countries excluded include Bahrain, Croatia, Denmark, France, Peru, Qatar, Romania, Russia, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, the United States of America, and others. The list will be changed every two weeks, based on the changing data in those countries. Some of the countries included are big tourism draws for the South African tourism sector. On top of that, this list was released to the market only on the eve of the October 1, giving little time for the world to prepare.

Well, to get his thoughts on the latest, I’m joined on the line by Linden Birns, the managing director at Plane Talking. Thank you so much for joining us, Linden. Some people are already questioning the rationale behind some of the countries. For example, Spain is said to be one of the European countries with quite a major Covid-19 problem, but they’re not on the list. So, while the country that is South Africa needs to be cautious, are there any concerns on your side with how the countries have been chosen?

LINDEN BIRNS: Hi, good evening and good evening to all the listeners. I think the takeaway from the announcement yesterday was that this is complex. So there’s complexity, there’s opaqueness and there seems to be a degree of arbitrariness as well. It’s not very clear what those criteria were for determining which countries should be on, or how they should be classified as high, medium, or low risk.

As you pointed out, Spain seemingly doesn’t cut the mustard. And thankfully, if you’re traveling from Spain and from Germany, we’re trying to get confirmation or corroboration of the fact that the data that’s been relied on is already two or three months’ old – infection and mortality rates. We were told that this was data from July, but I need to get it corroborated.

The other crucial thing is that there was no discussion around the rules or requirements for South Africans wanting to travel out of the country.

NOMPU SIZIBA: What do you suppose were the effects of telling the market so late in the day, literally at the 11th hour, on the aviation industry, because presumably some airlines already took off yesterday, on the eve.

LINDEN BURNS: There were flights that were being scheduled to depart last night, to fly to South Africa. Obviously a lot of people would have had to have cancelled their trips if they wouldn’t have been eligible to get through the airport on arrival today. I don’t think it has done South Africa terribly many favours. We’ve had two weeks since the president decided to announce the opening of the borders for international travel. Presumably that didn’t come as a shock surprise, and was not something that he decided to announce by sucking his thumb. There must have been discussion and debate around this, building up to the announcement two weeks ago.

So the question then is what’s been going on in the subsequent period. Why was it left until the last minute, literally? It doesn’t help our reputation. This was a time when we needed this, as a tourism industry in the country – and I include the airlines in this. This is the time we need to be capitalising. The market is going to be weak going forward, as it is. We need to capture as much as we possibly can if we want to protect and retain as many of the jobs in the country that we can. We’re talking today about 270 000 jobs that are at risk, South Africans directly working in air transport and working in its supply-chain businesses, as well as in tourism.

NOMPU SIZIBA: Look, granted the way that things have been done is not ideal at all, telling people who are going on long-haul flights the day before whether they can come into the country or not is not ideal at all. But how do you think this should be exercised? What are other countries doing, because we know that South Africa is not the only country that’s blacklisting certain countries.

LINDEN BIRNS: Yes. I think if we go back a couple of months, the United Nations has two particular bodies. One is the International Civil Aviation Organization, Icao, and the other is the World Health Organization. Now the two of them got together, they set up a task group chaired by a South African doctor, who is the chief medical advisor to Icao. And this is a task group set up to determine and define a set of measures for biosecurity that could be applied globally on a standard basis, standardised and harmonised.

The idea for that was not to repeat the mistakes that were made after 9/11, where everyone and their dog went off and invented their own standards and measures and protocols for security, and we’re left 19 years later with a patchwork of inconsistent images. So, when you go to an airport, some airports ask you to take off your shoes, other ones want to see your laptop, the next one wants you to take your belt off, and so on. There’s no standard. The organisations wanted to make sure there was one standardised set of procedures and standards for biosecurity for Covid-19.

Some countries have agreed, and have bought into that. Countries like Rwanda, which has now adopted all of those measures, 100%. But many others have said, yes, we like those, but we’re going to do own thing as well. And countries like the UK have done that.

Interestingly, one of the recommendations of the WHO and Icao in those guidelines is they do not include quarantine. What they say is, let’s have a measured set of screening and testing that is done on departure, but we don’t need to have quarantinees through, to be able to stop the people who are infected from getting anywhere near an airport. And those who present with symptoms at an airport – stop them from getting on a plane.

NOMPU SIZIBA: It is quite tricky. Look, I know this is a bit of a weird question but, given that South Africa has decided to label certain countries high risk, are there any worries about any potential tit-for-tat by some countries, which would be quite immature, actually, given that the reason behind it would be because there’s a fear that there are too many Coronavirus infections in their countries.?

LINDEN BIRNS: Well, what’s so arbitrary about this was that Dr Motsoaledi, when he was announcing it, explaining it yesterday, said, we’re happy if you are an investor coming to spend your money in the country, we’re happy if you’re a diplomat, and we’re happy to have you if you’ve got a high school visa. But if you’re just coming here on holiday, please don’t bother.

Now, what makes anybody who might have a wallet full of money, or a big cheque to write out, any less susceptible to being a spreader of illness? Excuse me being cynical but, you know, some of the super-spreaders have been politicians who gather at funerals and other events seemingly under the expectation that they are immune.

NOMPU SIZIBA: Yes. You make a fair point there. But I think, like you say, it’s a very complex issue. They are going to be looking at their list every two weeks. But, if you’re suggesting that they’re relying on data that’s perhaps three months old, it’s going to be quite interesting how things develop. Maybe we should speak to them ourselves, and find out what the rationale is.

LINDEN BIRNS: Look, it would be good to have that clarity – and that’s needed for everyone. The entire industry needs it, as well as all the people we want to attract and invite and host in the country.

NOMPU SIZIBA: And in the meantime it’s limbo for the tourism industry. I mean, if we think about the heavy hitters that come to this country – United States, United Kingdom, countries like The Netherlands.

Alright, Linden, we’re going to leave it there. Thank you very much for talking to us, as always.