East Africa: Fight COVID-19, Yes, But Leave Borders Open for Traders


As they responded to the growing number of Covid-19 cases, East African governments have progressively tightened the screws, throwing the region into a virtual lockdown.

Having registered the region's first case, Rwanda is kind of leading the way by designing the template on which others have based their own measures.

After Kigali banned passenger travel between major population centres, Uganda suspended public transport from buses down to motorbike taxis. Travel in private vehicles was limited to a maximum of three passengers. Kenya imposed a dusk-to-dawn curfew.

As has been amply demonstrated, lockdowns are an effective way of breaking the transmission chain of any pandemic. They are even more compelling in the African setting where the capacity to cope with even a limited outbreak, barely exists.

With the rich West that would normally come to the rescue nearly overwhelmed by their own Covid-19 crisis, Africa and East Africa in particular, can only hope that they can detect possible cases early to preclude uncontained spread.

Yet panic must not overshadow reason.

In the absence of alternative arrangements, the blanket ban on public transport meant a huge number of health workers could not reach their work stations. Until March 26, hundreds of commercial vehicles, some carrying perishable supplies, were trapped on the Ugandan side of the border because Kenya would not let them in.

Closing borders will only add to the pain imposed by the health crisis and could, in some instances, even impede efforts to contain it. And if anything is important in this crisis, it is the need to keep supply chains open.

Even in a lockdown and in the absence of functional social safety nets, people will still need food and essential supplies.

The health system will need medicine and other medical supplies. Some jobs cannot simply be done away with and their holders need mobility to fulfil their roles.

If there is anything to learn from the air transport industry, it is how transport and commerce have contributed to efforts to fight the crisis. With a set of common sense measures, cargo flights have continued to deliver essential supplies to where they are needed. Even at the peak of its lockdown, China did not cocoon itself from the rest of the world.

The folly of disrupting commerce and its supply chain immediately manifested in Uganda were the price of basic items such as salt increased five-fold in less than 24 hours. Threats to punish profiteers remain just that because the state cannot control the prices of what it does not produce. If price controls are to have a chance at all, supply lines need to remain open. The alternative will be hoarding in the short term, followed by biting shortages.

Keeping trade open is even more compelling in Africa's largely agrarian economies where smallholder farmers dominate. Thin on margins, many might not recover from a prolonged closure of markets.

For the benefit of consumers and the wider economy, it is imperative that trade within the EAC is facilitated to flow.

More restrictions might as well become necessary depending on the direction cases in the region takes.

Until there is a compelling case, however, restrictions should be measured.

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