Op-ed: The cost of coronavirus in Africa: What measures can leaders take?

by Dorothy Tembo, ITC Executive Director ad interim

With the novel coronavirus COVID-19 having reached the African continent, countries are getting ready to manage the spread of the virus and ensure that their fragile health systems can cope. Images from China and Europe give many reasons for concern.

In addition to the health challenges posed by COVID-19, Africa is already feeling the effect on its economies. With industries shutting down in Asia, America and Europe demand for raw materials and commodities is declining, but it is also hampering Africa’s access to industrial components and manufactured goods (including medical equipment).

Initial actions in Africa have focussed on slowing viral contagion with measures, including the closing of borders. These actions come as the continent has been making bold moves to increase economic integration, with African Union officials recently swearing in the first-ever Secretary-General of the newly created Secretariat of the African Free Continental Free Trade Agreement. The coronavirus could represent a risk for the continental project but leaders could also turn it into an opportunity for stronger collaboration. If leaders fast-track specific policies, it may also represent an opportunity if certain policies are fast-tracked. Quick gains could be achieved by consolidating the regional integration initiatives they are already implementing.

The closing of borders, for instance, can send a very different signal depending on how governments do it. Where leaders of neighbouring nations close borders together, as those of Portugal and Spain have done, it is a symbol of partnership in the fight against a pandemic. Reducing flows of people while keeping borders open for goods signals continued faith in the importance of economic activities and trade in providing the goods people need to continue their daily lives. In Africa, such collaboration will be crucial, especially for the continent’s sixteen landlocked countries.

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