Regional Collaboration Key to Containment of COVID-19 and Continuity of Free Trade within the EAC

The continued spread of COVID-19 virus within the six-member states East African Community (EAC) is both a regional concern that should warrant a collaborative approach for effective containment. Yet, members have largely turned inward ignoring high interconnectedness and interdependency. Since the detection of the virus in the region almost three months ago, each EAC member state adopted its own strategies, mostly instituting punitive restrictive measures including but not limited to ban of gatherings and suspension of international flights. However, Tanzania, which has since been declared COVID-19 free by President John Pombe Magufuli, preferred a different approach: resisting to impose domestic restrictions on movement, regulation of public gatherings and a reluctance in enforcing World Health Organization (WHO) advisories such as the use of face masks. It has not made public its COVID-19 data since April 29 to back its claims of virus elimination. Be that as it may, lack of regional strategies in containing virus spread could exacerbate virus transmission across the borders besides hampering intra-regional trade and free movement of people.

Border Closures                           

Movement of cargo has been at the heart of a disagreement in the region since the outbreak of the virus as truck drivers have been identified as potential carriers and cross border spreaders. On May 11, 2020, for example, Zambia’s authorities moved to close the crucial Tunduma-Nakonde border crossing point that connects Tanzania with Zambia, Zimbabwe and the Democratic Republic of Congo for all movement citing the increased number of COVID-19 cases in Zambia’s side attributed to truck drivers in transit from Tanzania. On its part, Rwanda denied entry to truck drivers from Tanzania instead proposed a ‘relay trucking system’ that will see Rwandese and Tanzania drivers exchange trucks at the Rusumo border point a move that was protested by both Tanzanian authorities and truck drivers themselves. In addition to these fallouts, Kenya and Tanzania were also engrossed in a dispute on May 16, 2020, when the former announced closure of its borders with the latter, save for cargo movement, sparking protests from Tanzanian officials and a brief total closure of Tanzanian borders to Kenyan truck drivers.

While some of these disagreements have since been resolved, they point to an urgent need for cooperation and joint strategies in managing the spread of the virus within the EAC. In part, this is because intraregional trade is now important more than ever given the ongoing closure of international borders globally that has resulted in a decline in international trade and tourism that EAC member states rely upon to keep economies afloat. Also, continued dilly-dallying in enforcing joint virus protocols poses a serious public health challenge. For instance, the current traffic snarl-up at the Kenya-Uganda border posts of Malaba and Busia, approximated at over 100 Kilometers by the media due to delayed testing and lack of coordination among authorities, could lead to an increase in communal infections among drivers, to communities at these points and destinations of these drivers at a possible great human cost.

Diplomatic Engagements

Prior attempts to forge a regional consensus among EAC member states on how to contain the spread of the disease within the region seems to have hit a dead-end partly by the failure of Burundi and Tanzania to attend a virtual EAC Summit that was held on May 12, 2020. Dodoma argued that the meeting’s agenda, COVID-19 pandemic, was only a concern to the northern corridor countries, which it is not a part of while Bujumbura cited engagement with the just concluded general election. This push and pull ignores the realities of interconnectedness and interdependence of the East African region and the nature of the spread of the disease. Therefore, further diplomatic efforts should be undertaken towards this endeavor for the sake of safeguarding regional integration and cooperation, safety, and intra-regional trade which is crucial to resuscitating EAC members’ economies ravaged by the pandemic and the resultant interruptions in international trade lines.

This calls on the heads of states to work together, guided by experts and best practices to take actions that guarantee their nation’s public safety while at the same protecting and upholding regional interests. In the event that restrictions of cross-border movement are necessary, such should be preceded by diplomatic discussions similar to one undertaken by the governments of the US and Canada on border closure and enforced in a way that will not hinder the seamless movement of cargo and traders. Besides, restrictions should be imposed and only lifted based on the level of threat as revealed by data on the spread of the disease. World over, cases surveillance and data transparency are some of the best practices that have characterized the war against the virus. It not only supports global efforts in tracking the spread of the disease but could also create necessary in-country citizen awareness and potentially improve trust between citizens and their government in its handling of the pandemic. More so, disclosure of data and daily statistics on the virus is crucial in mobilizing regional coordination and harmonization of containment approaches in a way that does not jeopardize existing friendships and bilateral cooperation.

Secondly, government officials from the EAC member states must desist from publicly propagating nationalistic sentiments as they risk straining the goodwill for negotiations and hardening partisan positions by their neighbors.  It should not be lost on observers that it was nationalistic interests and ideological differences among the then heads of states that contributed to the collapse of the EAC in 1977. Restraint among officials will, therefore, forestall a repeat of history in this regard. Consequently, the EAC, which has thus far largely missed in action, should step up its role in the fight against the virus and the recovery of the economies. EAC agencies including the Secretariat should mobilize resources to support member states with the testing, enhancing of health care capacities and sharing of good practices in the handling of the virus. This will go a long way in supporting the containment of the virus in the region and fast-track adoption of a regional reopening and recovery formulae.

 Elvis Salano is a Research Assistant at the HORN Institute.

Photo: East Africa Community countries’ flags in Arusha, Tanzania (Photo Credit: East African Court of Justice)

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