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South Africa Repeals COVID Rules, Mask Mandate

FILE — In this Aug. 24, 2020 file photo, a student, wearing a face mask and shield, returns to the Melpark Primary School in Johannesburg after several months of lockdown.

South Africa has repealed COVID-19 rules that made masks mandatory in indoor public spaces, limited the size of gatherings and imposed entry requirements at its borders, the health minister said on Thursday.

South Africa has recorded the most coronavirus cases and deaths on the African continent, with over 3.9 million confirmed infections and more than 101,000 deaths. Still, it's lifting its mask mandate.

Health Minister Joe Phaahla said authorities had noted a decline in cases, hospitalizations and reported deaths and concluded that a limited fifth wave was dissipating.

"The COVID-19 virus is not yet gone, ... we are just stronger than before especially with vaccination," he told a news conference, urging those eligible for boosters and not yet vaccinated to come forward.

South Africa's vaccination campaign initially struggled because of limited supplies and protracted negotiations with manufacturers but more recently it has been dogged by hesitancy.

Around half of the country's 40 million adults have received at least one vaccine dose, with 46% fully vaccinated.

Phaahla said managers of places, such as restaurants, hotels and schools could still require masks on their premises but it was no longer government policy.

Tourism Minister Lindiwe Sisulu said scrapping the requirement for travelers to show a vaccination certificate or negative COVID test would help make South Africa more accessible and help the hospitality industry.

Asked about the country's latest steps, Africa's top public health agency said countries were at different stages of coping with COVID-19 and advised the use of data-driven strategies.

"We also expect that the protocols will not all be the same during this stage of the pandemic," the acting director of the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) Ahmed Ogwell Ouma told a briefing.

"We have encouraged them [countries] to use their own data, the evolving situation on the ground and their capacity for provide any adjustments."