The World Health Organization called on African countries Thursday to take comprehensive safety measures to “mitigate a surge” in COVID-19 cases, as nations resume air travel.
The African economy, which is heavily reliant on travel and tourism, has been struck hard by the global pandemic.
“Air travel is vital to the economic health of countries,” Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, the WHO’s regional director for Africa, said Thursday in a press release. “But as we take to the skies again, we cannot let our guard down. Our new normal still requires stringent measures to stem the spread of COVID-19.”
Earlier in the pandemic, 36 sub-Saharan African countries closed their borders to international travel, with eight more blocking flights from the worst-hit countries. Now, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Tanzania and Zambia have resumed commercial flights, and the 15 members of the Economic Community of West African States will open their airspaces on July 25.
The WHO recommended that African countries implement “comprehensive” entry and exit screening, maintain social distancing where possible, encourage “cough etiquette,” register incoming passengers and follow up with them to track the outbreak.
Thursday’s press release came hours after Amani Abou-Zeid, the African Union’s commissioner for infrastructure and energy, said that the continent had lost nearly $55 billion in travel and tourism revenue in just three months because of the pandemic. Africa had previously expected revenue jumps in these sectors this year.
“We have 24 million African families whose livelihood is linked to travel and tourism," Abou-Zeid said. “The blow is very hard, between the economic losses and the job losses.”
African airlines, she added, have experienced an $8 billion, or 95%, drop in revenue, alongside other economic losses.
The International Monetary Fund projected last month that the sub-Saharan African economy would shrink by 3.2% this year, revised from a 1.6% contraction in April.
The WHO, however, pressed countries to weigh the financial costs of maintaining closed borders with the costs of a more severe outbreak, and asked nations to decide if their health care and contact tracing systems could handle an increase in COVID-19 cases.
Temperature screening at points of entry is relatively well-established in Africa because of the continent's experience with Ebola, Moeti said Thursday at a WHO-World Economic Forum press conference. Ebola outbreaks have also primed COVID-19 contact tracing efforts, she said.
As of Thursday, Africa had over 414,000 confirmed infections and nearly 200,000 recoveries, according to the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Over 10,000 people have died. South Africa, Egypt and Nigeria have reported the most cases in the region by far.
About 22% of destinations worldwide had eased travel restrictions as of June 25, up from just 3% in mid-May, according to the U.N. World Tourism Organization. Most are in Europe.
On Tuesday, the European Union released a list of 15 countries whose citizens would be allowed to enter the bloc, provided the gesture was reciprocated.