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1 July 2020

Jaime de Melo is Emeritus Professor at the University of Geneva and a Researcher at the International Growth Centre.

Africa is the last continent to be hit by COVID-19. Toward the end of June, reported cases neared 300,000 and deaths 8,000 across the 54 countries. Coordination across countries has been low in spite of the cross-border nature of the pandemic and its effects.  The Regional Economic Communities (RECs), whose principal function was coordinating trade policy, and other supra-national institutions provide the institutional framework for the needed cooperation and joint action. The latter has proved difficult in the past, but recent actions give hope that COVID-19 might be the spark to start implementing the Africa Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) in earnest.

The COVID-19 pandemic is a perfect example of a Global Public Good (a bad in fact) that calls for the kind of collective action intended by the Africa Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA).  Action is required to address the two elements of the crisis. On the health side, in the short-run, countries need international trade to secure the medical equipment required to test, care and treat patients so as to relieve pressure on hospital capacities. In the longer-run, countries need to develop a (several) vaccine(s) in the shortest possible time. On the wealth side, the cost of flattening the epidemiological curve is curtailing economic activities. How each element is handled affects the other; a long lockdown to meet the medical constraint exacerbates the wealth constraint as economic activity plummets (and citizens lose patience) and vice-versa for lax containment measures. Neither element leaves much room to manoeuvre, especially in African countries.

President Cyril Ramaphosa addresses nation on developments in South Africa’s risk-adjusted strategy to manage the spread of Coronavirus COVID-19. Source: Government ZA |

So far, countries have turned inwards. Faced with the fall in availability of essential goods (medical supplies, but also food) on international markets, countries have tried to secure these goods by reducing import barriers while simultaneously restricting exports. Export curbs by frightened governments undermine the incentives to exporters to produce more and raise doubts about security in importing countries. Global level estimates for food that take into account that countries are risk-averse suggest that uncooperative trade policies could multiply the initial COVID-19 shock on trade by a factor of 3 with food-dependent low-income countries hit hardest. To remedy this prisoner’s dilemma situation, Evenett and Winters propose a time-limited WTO-consistent bargain whereby exporting countries commit to limit their restrictions on exports in return for importing countries keeping their import restrictions at current low levels.

In reaction to uncertainty about supply chains resulting from the scale of the disruption, some observers suggest that Africa should prioritize regional rather than global value chains. An example is the potential for Africa to reduce its dependency on imports of medical supplies like disinfectants and surgical gloves through sourcing from African suppliers. Fast-forwarding the launch of AcFTA while not raising trade barriers with the outside world is the way to go. However, so far, according to the International Trade Centre, as of June 16, 29 African countries have reported 43 temporary trade measures on medical-related products,[1] of which 22 were liberalizing (i.e. reduction on barriers to import) and 21 were restrictive (across-the-board export restrictions/bans). Can the pandemic accelerate integration across the continent?

Table 1: Examples of cooperation to tackle COVID-19 in the health sector across Africa

Level Action Types of measures Examples
1 Information  & communication Collecting and sharing useful information Centralising and providing regular statistics on COVID cases by member state and region; information on country-level measures The AU CDC COVID-19 tracker. The WAHO in West Africa building on experience with Ebola outbreak of 2014-5; IGAD Secretariat, EAC Secretariat webpage, COMESA information on testing and measures among the 21 members.
2 Nudging & guidance Recommending or urging states to adopt policies to address the pandemic Calling on member states to increase testing and increase national heath expenditure. Suggest standards to facilitate trade ECOWAS recommended member states to allocate 15% of budget to strengthen health care systems. EAC recommended containment strategies and encouragement of partner states to invest in public health systems to ensure resilience and health security.
3 Coordination Joint monitoring within the REC Point of entry screening standards and certification; Harmonising border measures and prioritising value chains and productive capacity Re-activation of the Technical Committee for Coordinating and Monitoring the Implementation of the SADC Protocol on Health. Development of a regional mechanism for COVID-19 testing in EAC with certification and monitoring of truck drivers and a harmonised system for certification and sharing of COVID-19 test results; COMESA call for Member States to develop uniform standards for COVID-19 responses.
4 Collective action Harmonisation. Using joint structures to the benefit of all REC members Joint procurement and distribution of test kits, PPE and medical equipment; Joint resource mobilisation and regional budget reallocations

Africa medical supplies platform

ECOWAS allocated additional funding for WAHO to purchase and distribute testing kits, PPE, and a limited number of ventilators. IGAD is making efforts to secure the necessary finance to head off the crisis.

One-stop shop to deliver medical supplies sourced from African countries and China through hubs like Addis Ababa and Johannesburg.

Abbreviations: AU: Africa Union. Africa CDC: Center for Disease control. COMESA: Community of East and South Africa. EAC: East Africa Community. ECOWAS: Economic Community of West Africa. IGAD: Intergovernmental Authority on Development. PPE : Personal protection equipment. REC: Regional Economic Community. WAHO West Africa health organization.

Source : Author adapted and expanded from Medinilla et al. 2020

However, despite these uncoordinated policies, there are also signs that cooperation is taking place across the continent, mostly within RECs – See table 1. At the top, informing (COVID-tracker) is the easiest to carry out. It has taken place from the start. REC secretariats have used their infrastructure to issue technical guidance. At the bottom of the table, coordination, and especially, collective action, are more difficult to achieve, but they bring greater benefits (e.g. joint procurement and distribution of medical equipment slows down the spread of the disease). But here serious compromises are required. Harmonization faces two challenges. First, where states are taking different approaches to managing the pandemic, agreement must be reached between heads of state on containment and trade policies. Second, with overlapping REC membership, harmonization requires that members in all RECs agree. Thus, under the Tripartite FTA, all 28 members of COMESA, EAC and SADC must agree on the measures to be adopted. Even under the current crisis, this is a challenge. Pragmatically, then, a bottom-up approach may be more fruitful, for example, on both sides of a single border between Kenya and Uganda, leaving wider harmonization with other EAC member states for later.

So far, the recently created Africa medical platform represents collective action at the continental level. The platform is designed to address shortages and security of supply, ensure price competitiveness and transparency in procurement, and reduce logistical delays. The platform should give the continent a fairer chance in the international scramble for COVID-19 test kits, protective equipment and vaccines when they emerge. The volumes transiting through the platform should lower costs to access services from quality-certified suppliers. It is the most promising step towards starting the implementation of the AfCFTA.  A concrete example of the benefits of cooperation, if it operates smoothly, this platform should be an example of the beginning of the long-sought-after supranational decision-making in Africa.

The REC responses to COVID-19 could represent a ‘tipping point’ for jump-starting collective action across Africa, first at the REC level and then at the continental level. Arguably, this happened with the 2003 Tsunami that triggered cooperation in the ASEAN region, for example, with the setting up of an early warning system. With luck, the early steps at regional cooperation on medical measures will deepen and later spread to other regional public goods like regional power markets, river basin management, road networks and digital connectivity.


[1]  Concerned products include personal protection equipment, pharma products, hand sanitizer and certain food products.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author alone and do not necessarily represent the opinions of the University of Sussex or UK Trade Policy Observatory.

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