On March 31, Intergovernmental Authority on Development (Igad) heads of state and governments “gathered” by their screens to discuss the novel coronavirus.
It was the first time the leaders of the regional bloc met this way.
Traditionally, they burnt aviation fuel to meet in capitals of member states. Igad members are Kenya, Ethiopia, Sudan, South Sudan, Somalia, Uganda and Djibouti.
Eritrea is technically a member but has kept away since 2007. At the virtual meeting last week, the leaders said they are concerned about the “unprecedented global health crisis” of Covid-19.
President Uhuru Kenyatta said the spread of the virus means it is no longer “a problem that can successfully be fought by a single nation”.
“We remain in real danger of devastating upsurges unless we take decisive collaborative actions,” he said.
Igad later agreed to formulate a comprehensive regional strategy “and an accompanying implementation plan to address the Covid-19 pandemic”.
That plan will target vulnerable groups like displaced people, refugees and migrants as well as creating an emergency response fund.
The meeting took place on the same day Kenya’s Foreign Affairs Cabinet Secretary Raychelle Omamo chaired a virtual forum for 56th Commonwealth ministers.
The session expressed concern on how the coronavirus is disrupting lives and encouraged the secretary-general to help raise funds to support the poor.
Earlier, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa gathered his colleagues under the AU Bureau to discuss saving the continent from the impact of the virus.
The bureau also has Mr Kenyatta, Felix Tshisekedi of DR Congo and Mali’s Ibrahim Boubacar.
A dispatch released after the meeting said the leaders agreed to establish a continental anti-Covid-19 fund to which members of the bureau would immediately contribute $12.5 million as seed funding.
The bureau also agreed to raise $4.5 million for the Africa Centre for Disease Control.
Kenya pledged to contribute $2 million to the fund and another $1 million to the centre.
According to Kenya’s Foreign Affairs Principal Secretary Macharia Kamau, virtual meetings are probably going to be a main feature of international conferences, often known as multilateral diplomacy, “for a very long time to come”.
But the key lesson from the pandemic, he told the Sunday Nation, is the need to strengthen multilateral agencies like the United Nations.
“There is a global crisis, no global police and a weakened, battered UN system. This is the time to back up the UN system. We should strengthen multilateral agencies by investing in them not marginalising them,” he said.
The virus, he said, has opened up a weakness that has manifested in other global issues.
“Superpowers hated the UN and multilateralism when the two fought climate change ... because they were being protective,” he said.
“Now they have realised just how important it is to work together. They are not as big as they thought they were.”