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Rising Up to the Challenge: COVID-19 Guidelines Amidst Border Closures and a Pandemic

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Since the outbreak of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, over 100 million cases have been confirmed the world over, with Africa recording 3.5 million of the confirmed cases. However, insufficient testing continues to contribute to underestimation of the scale of the pandemic in developing countries.

To curtail the spread of the virus, governments have resorted to lockdowns and border closures. This has led to a 4.3 per cent drop in global GDP in 2020, the sharpest contraction since the Great Depression. While Africa weathered the economic fallout better, recording a 3.4 per cent drop in continental GDP in 2020, limited policy space, absence of efficacious treatment and slow-paced roll out of vaccines will result in a modest recovery.[1]

Amidst border closures, trade volumes have fallen. The World Trade Organization projects a drop in African exports and imports by 8 and 16 per cent, respectively, each with its own unique implications for African economies.[2] With the global recession and the disruption of travel, Africa's high reliance on primary commodity exports (77 per cent of total exports) poses serious risks to trade. Meanwhile, Africa is still heavily reliant on imports for essential goods like food items, energy and fuel products, and pharmaceutical products, which are key to mitigating the COVID-19 pandemic. These essential goods make up 32 per cent of the continent's total imports, compared with a global average of 23 per cent, revealing a unique vulnerability to trade flows and further emphasizing the need to facilitate cross-border trade on the continent.[3]

Some country groups, like landlocked developing countries with no direct access to maritime trade routes are reliant on the transit partners to facilitate inland trade that is key in accessing essential goods. Additionally, small-scale cross-border traders, who predominantly consist of women and youth, are also disproportionately impacted by the closing of land borders and related domestic travel restrictions.

To address the concerns, many Regional Economic Communities (RECs) have introduced trade facilitation guidelines to provide a harmonized framework in promoting safe cross-border trade. Presently, three of the eight AU-recognized RECs -- the East African Community (EAC), the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA), and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) -- have proposed and adopted REC-wide guidelines to facilitate trade between April and May 2020. The early action of these RECs highlights the acknowledgement that regional cooperation is paramount to controlling the spread of the pandemic, particularly due to the cross-border transmissibility of the virus.

The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) is continuing to work on a draft of the guidelines to be proposed and adopted in the REC. Additionally, to complement the Tripartite Free Trade Agreement, the EAC, COMESA, and SADC have also proposed a harmonized set of guidelines for the Tripartite region in July 2020. These examples of regional cooperation geared towards ensuring the continued flow of goods and services, as well as limiting the economic and public health disruptions of the pandemic are indeed very instructive and worth replicating.

Acknowledging the need for an even greater level of harmonization, UNECA, the AUC, and AUDA-NEPAD are collaborating on a set of trade facilitation guidelines to be adopted at the continental level. While the current draft of the continental guidelines draws from the aforementioned existing guidelines, the continental guidelines have an expanded scope, covering all modes of transportation (land, maritime, and air) and provide specific recommendations like the use of hand-off zones for port workers to minimize contact between staff. The current working draft of the guidelines also highlight actions to be taken to address the unique circumstances faced by small-scale cross-border traders, like the implementation of short-term border-crossing permits, and by women, such as the provision of gender-sensitive training for customs and border officers.

Most notably, the draft guidelines call for enhanced exchange and sharing of information, technical assistance, and monitoring and review processes. With a centralized knowledge hub, governments and agencies will be able to more effectively track the spread of the virus and learn from the success of other Member States in controlling and mitigating the spread of COVID-19. In the call for technical assistance and capacity building, the emphasis on building a manufacturing infrastructure to support local production of personal protective equipment (PPE) and essential medical supplies is highlighted alongside the call for the ratification of the African Medicines Agency, in the continued effort to harmonize pharmaceutical regulation on the continent in terms of registration and control. With monitoring and review, Member States would be able to learn from the successes and challenges of others, allowing for the continent to better address the COVID-19-stemmed crises until herd immunity is achieved.

Recently, the draft continental guidelines were presented at an Experts' Group Meeting convened on 17 November 2020. The meeting brought together experts from various international agencies and representatives from governments and RECs. Subsequently, a revised draft was presented at the African Union's Sub-Committee of Directors General of Customs on 27 November 2020. Further input was received from customs officials across the continent.

While the current guidelines, at the REC-level and the proposed draft continental guidelines, were specifically created to address the COVID-19 Pandemic and the corresponding economic fallout, they provide a framework for trade facilitation in future crises as well as in normal times. With the commencement of trading under the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), these trade facilitation guidelines can allow countries to integrate processes like expedited customs procedures into regular customs processing. Greater harmonization and integration can be achieved to jumpstart the economic recovery process for the continent, long after the elimination of COVID-19.

[1] World Economic Situation and Prospects 2021, UNDESA (2021), https://www.un.org/development/desa/dpad/wp-content/uploads/sites/45/WES....

[2] Trade set to plunge as COVID-19 pandemic upends global economy, WTO (2020), https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/pres20_e/pr855_e.htm.

[3] UNCTADStat Database (accessed Jan 2021). https://unctadstat.unctad.org/wds/TableViewer/tableView.aspx. Trade data is shown as a 3-year average from 2017-19.