East Africa: Re-Open Airspace With Great Caution

editorial

After months of shuttering air travel, East Africa is gradually joining the rest of the world in opening up.

Kenya, Rwanda and Tanzania are now permitting international flights, even as their land borders remain closed to passenger travel. Only Uganda, South Sudan and Burundi are still closed, but they are coming under increased pressure to open up. By the end of the week, only 22 of Africa's 55 member states were still maintaining a full ban on international air passenger travel.

Opening up might appear contradictory because it comes at a time when the region is experiencing a sharp rise in the Covid-19 caseload. The combined number of cases in the EAC four member states that are still reporting data is now into five-digit territory and still rising. In the past ten days, Uganda reported its first two fatalities, bringing home the reality of the disease to a largely skeptical public.

However, as the International Air Transport Association (IATA) explained, the Covid-19 trend in East Africa, and Africa in general, should not be surprising.

Early shutdowns of international travel slowed down the pandemic's progress on the continent. On the average Covid-19 profile, Africa is anywhere between four and six weeks behind the rest of the world. This means that as the rest of the world gets over the worst of the pandemic, it will only be picking up in Africa. This will inevitably prompt governments to introduce new restrictions, but these should be based on the wealth of information that is now available about the pandemic.

Restrictions pose a very big dilemma because the world, including Africa, needs air travel to keep the wheels of the global economy turning. Just seven countries- Benin, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Rwanda, Senegal and Tanzania that have recently restarted air travel account for almost a fifth of passenger traffic in Africa.

The numbers are depressing so far. Without intervention, African airlines are forecast to post $2 billion in losses this year, thanks to disruptions caused by Covid-19 and the associated restrictions. IATA warns that without immediate financial interventions, Africa's airline industry faces imminent collapse. That would put some 3.3 million jobs and $33 billion in GDP at risk. And governments cannot put up the $30 billion needed to rescue the industry.

The perception of Covid-19 across most of the world is that it is an imported disease, hence the lockdowns to keep it at bay. Fortunately, there is now a lot more information about how Covid-19 spreads, and air travel can be reopened with minimal risk. The International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) has published a set of guidelines to help countries safely re-open air travel. Dubbed Take-Off, the guidelines cover a set of biosafety measures such as adequate social distancing, wearing of face masks, deep sanitation and disinfection, health screening and contact tracing.

Closing the borders forever is not an option in an inter-connected world. But caution is also in order because the risk of the Covid-19 virus resurgence is real. Applied properly, the ICAO guidelines assure a high degree of safety from infection and also serve to return confidence to the travelling public.

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