Ramaphosa tells smokers to be patient: ‘It’s only a matter of time’

President Cyril Ramaphosa has reiterated the impermanent nature of government’s risk-adjusted approach to lockdown, adding that the prohibition of tobacco would be repealed at lower levels.

In an exclusive late-night interview with SABC on Thursday, President Ramaphosa faced a barrage of questions relating to the COVID-19 outbreak in South Africa and the subsequent lockdown. The president’s responses were tabled just hours after Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma gazetted Level 3 lockdown regulations and members of the National Coronavirus Command Council (NCCC) expanded on departmental responsibilities.

Lockdown South Africa: The good, the bad and the ugly

The state-backed lockdown, which has been in place for more than two months, has divided public opinion and been the subject of fierce criticism. As noted by Ramaphosa, scientific evidence supported the success of South Africa’s initial lockdown. Stringent regulations, which restricted economic activity and personal freedoms, managed to reduce the coronavirus’ curve. Slowing down the rate of infection afforded a timely reprieve to ready healthcare systems for the inevitable peak.

While lockdown’s medical benefits have been lauded, its impact on the economy has pushed South Africa to the brink of a financial depression. Unemployment rates are expected to increase by more than 20%, and while most industries have been permitted to reopen at Level 3 lockdown, the economic devastation caused by two months of inactivity has proven too much to bear for thousands of small businesses. Many small, medium and micro-enterprises will never reopen their doors.

Critics of government’s lockdown — opposition parties, civil societies, economic analysts, the public and even medical scientists — argue that regulations have been too restrictive for too long and that the NCCC missed its opportunity to balance the cost of lives with livelihoods.

Ramaphosa: ‘No issue between scientists and politicians’

Judging from recent statements issued by Health Minister Zweli Mkhize in response to criticism tabled by Professor Glenda Gray — president of the Medical Research Council (SAMRC) and lead expert on the Ministerial Advisory Committee — scientists and politicians have butted heads over the ongoing lockdown.

Gray claimed that government had gone rogue and was no longer heeding scientific advice from medical experts. The professor added that the continued lockdown was “not based on science” and was “completely unmeasured”.

During his interview with the public broadcaster, Ramaphosa was questioned about possible tensions between scientists and politicians. The president was quick to dispel rumours of disunity between government and the advisory committees, saying:

“Diverse views are to be welcomed, they must never be silenced. People must express themselves. We have said that the medical advisory committee has been advising government extremely well.

We welcome everybody’s input on that medical advisory committee, including the recent ructions that we had, which have now been solved. They’ve been solved and that is now behind us; they are united in their purpose and giving us advice.

I see no problem. There is really no issue between scientists and politicians.”

Cyril Ramaphosa to smokers: This too shall pass

One of the most hotly-contested regulations within the Disaster Management Act which governs the risk-adjusted lockdown, has been the continued prohibition of tobacco products. Since late March, the sale and purchase of cigarettes has been outlawed.

In addition to frustrating millions of South African smokers, this law has given rise to a burgeoning black market. With smokers unwilling to quit and paying hugely inflated prices for cigarettes, it’s expected that the ban has cost government over R35 million a day in lost excise duties.

The ban is currently being fought in court by multiple parties, with the Fair Trade Independent Tobacco Association (Fita) leading the charge.

Ramaphosa, who has been personally listed as a respondent in court orders, has called on South Africans and smokers, in particular, to be patient, noting that lockdown would not last forever. The president said:

“We are not permanently going to be on Level 3. We are going to migrate to another level. Even those who are hankering for tobacco, they must know that it is only a matter of time before their hankering is assuaged or addressed.”

The ongoing legal battle to have the prohibition of tobacco declared unlawful and overturned is expected to be heard before the Pretoria High Court on 9 June 2020.

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