Regional coordination against COVID-19: what role for the RECs?

As African Union (AU) member states prepare for the scheduled mid-year coordination meeting between the AU Bureau and regional economic communities (RECs), initially planned for early July, RECs are increasingly coordinating their efforts to contain the COVID-19 pandemic.

This has had mixed results because of the challenge of translating decisions into action, and because RECs do not seem to have adequately communicated their strategies to the African public.

In some cases, RECs have also chosen to defer to the continental action taken by AU Chairperson President Cyril Ramaphosa rather than duplicating efforts such as creating special COVID-19 funds.

Buhari leading ECOWAS responses

In West Africa, both the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the West African Economic and Monetary Union (UEMOA, composed of Benin, Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Mali, Niger and Togo) have taken action to coordinate efforts to address the spread of COVID-19 and its consequences.

ECOWAS held a virtual extraordinary summit of heads of state on COVID-19 on 23 April 2020, and designated President Muhammadu Buhari of Nigeria as the champion to coordinate its efforts. The strategy essentially revolved around putting in place regional mechanisms to create linkages among the scientific communities in each country and exchange good practices related to fighting the pandemic.

ECOWAS decided not to create a special fund but rather endow the one that had been set up by the AU in early April, following a meeting of the bureau convened by Ramaphosa. 

Addressing the economic impact of COVID-19

UEMOA countries – which share a common central bank and currency – also met on 27 April to discuss measures against COVID-19, with a particular emphasis on the economic response.

The organisation decided to allocate close to US$9 billion to alleviate the impact of the pandemic on employment and production. The funds would be raised through government-issued ‘COVID-19 social bonds’ to be purchased on the regional market.

The UEMOA also decided to temporarily suspend the ‘convergence, stability, growth and solidarity pact’, which aims to limit debt and inflation in the monetary union.

While the whole West African region shows an increase in COVID-19 cases (around 62 500 positive cases, just under 1200 deaths and nearly 33 300 recoveries as of 22 June) and the internal borders of ECOWAS remain closed, populations dependent on cross-border trade activities continue to be among the hardest hit.

The Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) has also developed a strategy to fight COVID-19 and its effects in Central Africa. The response 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 of COVID-19; and respond to cross-border security issues caused by the pandemic.

The implementation of these resolutions is largely dependent on how each country mitigates the impact of the pandemic at national level

The implementation of these common resolutions is, however, largely dependent on how each country mitigates the impact of the pandemic at national level. To date, Central Africa has officially recorded around 29 600 cases of COVID-19, close to 650 deaths and nearly 12 800 recoveries.

Border closures hamper joint action by the EAC

The East African Community (EAC) was quick to react to the threat of COVID-19 by convening a meeting of the region’s ministers of health and EAC affairs on 25 March.

It agreed on a strategy aiming to, among others, ‘ensure a joint and well-coordinated mechanism to fight COVID-19 in the region; facilitate the movement of goods and services; minimize the number of people who become infected or sick with COVID-19; [and] minimize 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 within the region became problematic for countries such as Tanzania, Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda.

Systematic but disorganised testing at different border points created serious delays, causing some perishable goods to be spoiled, while also placing truck drivers at further risk of getting infected. In some cases, truck drivers who tested positive were simply sent back to their countries.

Tanzanian Minister of Foreign Affairs Palamagamba Kabudi, also current chair of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Council of Ministers, lamented the fact that truck drivers had been stigmatised as carriers of the virus. He appealed for ‘the dignity of truck drivers to be respected’ during a virtual SADC meeting last month. Tanzania is a member of both SADC and the EAC.

Harmonising policies in SADC easier said than done

Since the outbreak of the pandemic, SADC has placed much of its focus on trying to maintain the momentum of its regional trade agenda, albeit with great difficulty.

SADC has placed much of its focus on trying to maintain the momentum of its regional trade agenda, albeit with great difficulty

On 6 April ministers of transport met in Tanzania and adopted ‘Regional Guidelines on Harmonization and Facilitation of Movement of Essential Goods and Services’, in an attempt to prevent huge delays during the lockdowns and ensure that essential goods could still circulate. Many landlocked countries in the region are dependent on imports.

Member states agreed to create facilitation committees and a liaison office was set up at the SADC Secretariat in Gaborone to assist with any hiccups in the process.

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 admitted in her speech during the opening session of the SADC Council of Ministers’ meeting on 28 May that the strategy faced many obstacles, including the unilateral implementation of measures by some governments and non-compliance with the agreed regional protocol.

Focus on pooled procurement

Besides trying to tackle border issues, SADC has also encouraged its 16 member states to procure essential medical supplies and equipment for the fight against COVID-19 from one another, rather than trying to import these from elsewhere at huge cost. How this will fit into the continent-wide strategy to create procurement platforms through the AU is not clear.

Still, at the risk of doubling of efforts, a mapping exercise of regional suppliers has been concluded, according to Tax, and the SADC Council of Ministers has appealed to countries to buy from their neighbours.

The danger of African countries’ dependence on imports has been one of the hard lessons learnt by African governments during the pandemic. 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. However, many member states lack basic healthcare infrastructure, and most citizens do not have access to quality healthcare service.

Mobilising funds

While most SADC member states will benefit from AU initiatives such as the Solidarity Fund and various philanthropic donations, the secretariat has raised just over €10 million for COVID-19 responses. This has been from the German government and the European Union, Tax told ministers at their meeting last month.

COVID-19 has clearly been a test for regional and continental leadership. Unfortunately, the chair of SADC during this time, Tanzania, has not shown any clear regional leadership. In fact, the country and its leader, John Magufuli, have been criticised for denialism.

AU coordination

Although all these regions – in spite of closing their borders to the movement of people – made specific and concrete efforts to allow the movement of essential goods, the general restrictions have negatively affected trade and threatened food security.

In addition to each regional response, Ramaphosa also convened two meetings, on 29 April and 12 June 2020, with the current chairs of each REC to discuss progress with the continental and regional strategies. This has led to the creation of the ‘Africa Medical Supplies Portal’, which is a ‘single continental market place where African countries can access critical medical supplies’.

Well-coordinated regional strategies will be crucial in fighting the pandemic and ensuring much-needed economic recovery efforts post-COVID-19 are successfully implemented.

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