African countries are increasingly trying to coordinate COVID-19 responses with those of their neighbours. This is done largely through regional economic communities, and is a potentially important response to the pandemic. Yet their efforts have had mixed results.
In many cases the regional bodies haven’t communicated their strategies sufficiently to the African public. Some have deferred to the continental action taken by African Union (AU) chairperson South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, rather than duplicating efforts such as creating special COVID-19 funds.
In West Africa, both the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the West African Economic and Monetary Union (UEMOA) are coordinating their member countries’ efforts. ECOWAS held an online heads of state COVID-19 summit on 23 April, and designated Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari to coordinate its initiatives. The strategy involved creating regional mechanisms to link scientific communities in each country and exchange good practices.
UEMOA countries – which share a common central bank and currency – met on 27 April to discuss COVID-19 measures with an emphasis on economic responses. They decided to allocate almost US$9 billion to alleviate the pandemic’s impact on employment and production. UEMOA also temporarily suspended the ‘convergence, stability, growth and solidarity pact’, which aims to limit debt and inflation in the monetary union.
The Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) has also developed a COVID-19 response strategy. It comprises four points: prevent the spread of the virus; limit the mortality rate and manage positive cases; respond to the socio-economic and security impact; and deal with cross-border security issues caused by the pandemic. Implementation however depends largely on how each country mitigates the effects of the pandemic at a national level.
The East African Community (EAC) was quick to react. It convened a meeting of the region’s ministers of health and EAC affairs on 25 March and agreed to a strategy that aims, among other things, to: ‘ensure a joint and well-coordinated mechanism to fight COVID-19 in the region; facilitate the movement of goods and services; minimise the number of people who become infected or sick with COVID-19; [and] minimise morbidity and mortality from the COVID-19 pandemic.’
Owing to restrictions placed on truck drivers, intra-regional trade was severely disrupted. Cross-border movement of essential goods in the region became problematic for countries like Tanzania, Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda. Testing at different border points created serious delays, causing some perishable goods to be spoilt, while placing truck drivers at further risk of getting infected.
Since the outbreak of the pandemic, the Southern African Development Community (SADC) has largely focused on maintaining its regional trade agenda. On 6 April transport ministers met in Tanzania and adopted guidelines on the movement of essential goods and services in an attempt to prevent huge delays during lockdowns. Many landlocked countries in the region depend on imports. States agreed to create facilitation committees and a liaison office was set up at the SADC Secretariat in Gaborone.
However, harmonising border protocols during lockdown, with restrictions and quarantine measures differing from country to country, was easier said than done. SADC Executive Secretary Stergomena Tax said at the SADC Council of Ministers meeting on 28 May that the strategy faced many obstacles. These included the unilateral implementation of measures by some governments and non-compliance with the agreed regional protocol.
Besides border issues, SADC encouraged its 16 member states to procure essential medical supplies and equipment for the COVID-19 response from one another, rather than importing them from elsewhere at a high cost. To avoid a duplication of efforts, a mapping exercise of regional suppliers has been done, according to Tax, and the SADC Council of Ministers has appealed to countries to buy from their neighbours.
African governments have learned, during this pandemic, that their countries’ (over)reliance on imports, particularly of vital goods, is not sustainable. The lack of proper disaster management and readiness systems for such calamities is also a lesson for Africa and countries around the world.
SADC started working on its Strategy for Pooled Procurement of Essential Medicines and Health Commodities over 10 years ago. Now should be the time to see such forward thinking paying off. But many member states lack basic healthcare infrastructure, and most citizens don’t have access to quality healthcare services.
Most SADC member states will benefit from AU initiatives such as the Solidarity Fund and various philanthropic donations. The regional body’s secretariat has itself raised just over €10 million for COVID-19 responses from the German government and the European Union, Tax said.
The pandemic has clearly been a test of leadership at all levels. Unfortunately, the chair of SADC during this time, Tanzania, hasn’t shown any clear regional leadership. The country and its leader, John Magufuli, have in fact been criticised for denialism.
Although all these regions of Africa made concrete efforts to allow the movement of essential goods, despite borders being closed to regular traffic, the general COVID-19 restrictions have negatively affected trade and threatened food security.
In addition to each regional response, Ramaphosa convened two meetings, on 29 April and 12 June, with the current chairs of each regional economic community to discuss progress on continental and regional strategies. This led to the creation of the Africa Medical Supplies Platform, a ‘single continental market place where African countries can access critical medical supplies.’
Well-coordinated regional plans are crucial to fight the pandemic and ensure that much-needed economic recovery efforts are successfully implemented. This month’s scheduled mid-year coordination meeting with the AU Bureau might reveal how regional economic communities have done so far and provide an opportunity to improve their response going forward.
Liesl Louw-Vaudran, Senior Researcher, Southern Africa and Mohamed Diatta, Researcher, PSC Report, ISS. This article was first published by the ISS’ PSC Report.