On 30 March 2020, President Cyril Ramaphosa once again addressed the nation regarding the COVID-19 pandemic and provided an update on the country-wide “lockdown”. He delivered a clear and concise message showing a deep understanding and care for the current plight of the nation. However, it is clear that he is a visibly strained man as South Africa and the rest of the world remain under siege from this invisible enemy.

The first quarter of 2020 has been an equally challenging experience for business and social lifespan globally, South African is no exception. “As the country went into lockdown, we received the news that the rating agency Moody’s had downgraded South Africa to a sub-investment grade. This will significantly increase the cost of borrowing to fund government spending and will have a negative impact on the economy,” Ramaphosa said. These are trying times for our nation.

The impact on business, mobility and scarce skills in South Africa  

Since the declaration of the state of disaster, we have witnessed a swift and coordinated issuance of directives by relevant and respective national departments. Amongst some of the noticeable directives issued, was the travel ban imposed by both the Department of Transport and Home Affairs to countries which have been declared “medium-to-high” risk by the World Health Organisation.

Most South Africa Embassies and High Commissions are currently completely closed or are offering limited services extending only to civic affairs. As it currently stands, the Embassies that remain open and continue to accept and process immigration applications include Algeria, Bulgaria, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cameroon, Fiji, Norway, Sao Paulo and Thailand. At this stage and understandably so, it’s not yet clear how time lost will be compensated and how embassies will be capacitated to process large volume of visa applications once the lockdown is lifted.

These directives have put an unavoidable strain on economic activities. Most business operations are being suspended, save for essential services which was spared, while international mobility and immigration are being adversely affected. To put things into perspective, our IT industry is largely dependent and supported by the foreign skills and resources from countries such as India and China. These individuals are no longer able to work on projects in South Africa and as such we are seeing many projects placed on hold indefinitely. This negatively impacts the economy and places businesses skill transfer plans in jeopardy. In addition, South Africans who were being sent to work on projects abroad to gain new skills that are considered scarce are also left in limbo.

The far-reaching effect and consequence of the above on our economy is yet to be fully experienced.

An uncertain future for global mobility

Until WHO declares medium-to-high risk countries safe again and removes restrictions on travelling in general, global mobility and immigration will remain suspended and business will suffer. Companies reliant on international mobility will feel the pinch and may never fully recover after the pandemic has been defeated. Large corporates have thus far reviewed their international mobility policies in line with government control measures and directives. However, it is uncertain how long they will be able function without internationally mobile resources.

Many foreign nationals who could not escape the lockdown have found themselves trapped in the country. Same can also be said about South Africans living abroad. Such are the times that there is even a growing Facebook group aimed at providing support for those stranded in South Africa and abroad.

It is imperative that foreign nationals who are still in the country and need to travel back home should contact their respective embassies to inquire if there are arrangements by their government to repatriate them back home. At this stage, only one country (Germany) has made arrangements with our government to evacuate its citizens. This was announced by Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula on 27 March 2020.

Furthermore, we have also reliably learnt that SAA will be on standby from this week (30 March 2020) to temporarily evacuate foreign nationals who are trapped in South Africa since the announcement of the lockdown. Discussions are already underway with different countries to facilitate the accommodation and evacuation of their citizens. This arrangement will not accommodate foreign nationals who have tested positive to COVID-19 and all passengers will be subjected to the testing and screening protocols before being repatriated.

Concluding remarks

We continue to encourage visa holders residing in South Africa to prepare for the renewal of their existing visas in order to remain compliant and/or re-gain compliance where a visa has already expired.

For foreign nationals abroad, this is the opportune time to start the application process by ensuring that all requirements are complied with to enable you to submit your visa applications as soon as the lockdown restrictions have been uplifted. The normal processing time by the Department of Home Affairs (DHA) is 4 – 8 weeks, however we anticipate that the DHA will receive an influx of applications once the travel bans are uplifted and a proactive approach will ensure you are ahead of the “queue”.

As President Ramaphosa said, “If we work together, if we keep to the path, we know we have to take, we will beat this disease. I have no doubt that we shall overcome”. Whilst we come into terms with the effect of Covid-19, we should heed the President’s call to not lose hope and use this time to reflect on how we, as South Africans, can unite and support Government in the fight against the COVID-19 outbreak in a combined effort to “flatten the curve”.