African countries, at least at the level of regional trade blocs, particularly EAC, SADCC, ECOWAS, will need greater joint efforts, beyond containing coronavirus, to resolve the many intractable problems that have always plagued African economies
As coronavirus engulfs the world and defies efforts to develop a vaccine or find a specific antiviral treatment, one of the questions that the spread of the pandemic has raised in the minds of many ordinary citizens, political leaders, public health strategists and journalists around the world, is whether the trick in fighting the deadly disease lies in cooperation between countries or in isolationism.
There seem to be two main responses to this question. Some people say this is a global health crisis, touching more than 187 countries and territories, and as such, it would be fallacious for any country to think that it can go it alone and be successful in stemming the tide of the pandemic and its crippling ripple effects. Others contend that, countries being all different sizes, levels of wealth, types of government that run them and all manner of cultural and geographic boundaries that are defined by the size of their economies, trade, their local interests and a plethora of other considerations, it is already clear that each country sees itself as uniquely placed and wishes to protect itself by extending its physical distancing measures to include closing its doors to the rest of the world.
That question has been escalated to levels where the disease has exposed aspirations and competition for world domination between some countries most-hit by the disease, as the US President, Donald Trump, accuses China of exporting the coronavirus. When the US announced the banning of flights from China and subsequently from a number of European countries, the action made sense from a public health perspective, to prevent new transmissions into the US from countries that were worst-hit at that point. But the announcement contained a political language, aimed to show that the president was in control and uncompromising and that the safety of the US and its people came first, even as the country, more than any other country at this point, was in need of lessons and medical supplies from the countries that had had more experience with combating the scourge. As this leaves the relations between the US and many other countries in a state of acrimony, not cooperation on Covid-19, it is hard to imagine what the return to global cooperation will look like when this disease has been contained, given the impact it has had, not just on diplomatic relations but on economies, livelihoods, social order and race relations.
Countries that are currently ruled by self-proclaimed populists, from the US’ Donald Trump to the UK’s Boris Johnson, to Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro to Hungry’s Viktor Orbán, the rhetoric is entirely one of inward posture, incompatible with the need for multilateralism that this global health crisis has demonstrated. Even within the European Union, one of the oldest regional blocs with the world’s third largest economy, Covid-19 has rattled the confidence of its member states’ capacity to successfully coordinate their war against the pandemic that the biggest among them, Germany, France, UK, Italy, were hammered by the disease, each in its isolated corner while the rest stood watch.
What about African leaders, which side of this question have they fallen? On May 12, 2020, the heads of state of the East African Community (EAC) held a video summit to discuss the efforts of the member states in containing the pandemic and to find better ways to coordinate these efforts as a region. The virtual meeting was long overdue but widely praised as an indirect answer to the question of multilateralism versus isolationism with regards to the fight against Covid-19.
But what have they been doing since the pandemic appeared in the region in late February? A health crisis of this magnitude should have long inspired multilateralism, at least within the regional bloc. Why did it take this long for them to hold a high-profile meeting, even as many citizens in the region had hoped since the beginning that the EAC would coordinate the efforts of member states so as to leverage the different strengths in some countries against the impact of the virus in countries with weaker systems?
There are two possible scenarios in explaining this puzzling lack of a stronger and concerted coordination. One is that, without reading too much into the ubiquitous absence of the Presidents of Tanzania and Burundi from the video summit this week, it is probably not lost on the many citizens of the region how President John Magufuli, has defied the disease. The president may not have been interested in any public health approaches to the disease, preferring to urge his people to simply pray away the pandemic. Second, even countries whose governments believe in multilateralism in combating Covid-19 wanted to control any possible outflow of life-saving medical supplies that they might require to focus on their own citizens first. Others may have qualified the definition of cooperation to focus it on coordination of response measures, sharing of information and funding support, while mindful of the dangers presented by open borders. Within East Africa, there has been an EAC regional Covid-19 response mechanism, and the leaders of Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan and Uganda who met this week seemed to have finally decided to respond to the need for continued trade and maintenance of vital supply chains, even as movement of people continues to be severely restricted.
Even if we assume that Africa has seen the worse of the pandemic, if the current case numbers remain low as they are, the impact of emergency response measures on the livelihoods, national economies, peace efforts and democratic spaces, has been immense and will last for quite some time to come. It would seem, therefore, that African countries, at least at the level of regional trade blocs, particularly EAC, SADCC, ECOWAS, will need greater joint efforts, beyond containing coronavirus, to resolve the many intractable problems that have always plagued African economies, now that the global pandemic has exacerbated these, especially issues of conflict, violence, climate change, floods, droughts, locust swarms and displacement of people. The sooner the extent of the impact of the pandemic on these issues is assessed and understood, the better the response measures can be tweaked, beyond health, so as to arrest all the other threats to life that it has triggered in Africa.
To this effect, the EAC leaders instructed their ministers in charge of Health, East African Affairs, Transportation and Trade to establish an EAC surveillance and tracking system to address cross-border challenges, especially the need to institute a screening system for truck drivers, airline crew and other essential personnel that the economies of the region and the livelihoods of its 177 million people need in order to stay alive. In other words, it seems the region’s leaders want to strike a balance between the two extremes, multilateralism versus isolationism. But wherever they stand, it is clear there’s need to start thinking about how to safely reopen for business and what measures they will need to collectively put in place to pre-empt the next surge of the disease, as the prospects for a vaccine or therapeutics are ever more dim for Africa.