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Covid-19: Lessons for EAC integration

Health workers taking a saliva swab for coronavirus testing in Kenya

Health workers taking a saliva swab for coronavirus testing in Kenya

On March 11, 2020, the director general of the World Health Organisation, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus announced that “Covid-19 can be characterized as a pandemic.”

He went on to warn that “Pandemic is not a word to use lightly or carelessly. It is a word that, if misused, can cause unreasonable fear or unjustified acceptance that the fight is over, leading to unnecessary suffering and death.”

Historically, mankind has faced pestilences from time to time. But according to Ghebreyesus “we have never before seen a pandemic sparked by a coronavirus. This is the first pandemic caused by a coronavirus. And we have never before seen a pandemic that can be controlled, at the same time.”

True to his word, for more than four months since the declaration, Covid-19 has literally brought all countries to their knees, including the high and mighty. It is also during this period when we have realised that solidarity amongst nations has never been more pertinent.

Covid-19 has put regional integration efforts to test, with some realising belatedly that there is no way this war could ever be won by countries acting singly. 

It all started in the European Union even before we consider our own East African Community. At the height of the pandemic, around April, countries in Europe, notably Italy and Spain, were experiencing an unprecedented crisis, losing up to 1,000 persons a day.

Apparently many countries had chosen to tackle the pandemic unilaterally. It backfired. It did not occur to them that with free movement of persons as espoused in the EU and other regional blocs including the EAC, the unilateral approach could just not work.

Thus EU Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, had to come out and offer a “heartfelt apology” to Italy for not helping at the start of the deadly coronavirus outbreak.

She told the EU parliament that “too many were not there... when Italy needed.”

She added, “Yes it is true that no one was really ready for this. It is also true that too many were not there on time when Italy needed a helping hand at the very beginning. For that, it is right that Europe as a whole offers a heartfelt apology.”

Ursula is also quoted saying that “Europe has now become the true beating heart of solidarity. The true Europe is now standing up.”

The situation was so dire that there were reports of disquiet when some countries decided to block exports of emergency equipment to neighbours in need.

Belgian Health minister Maggie De Block was quoted as saying that the state of affairs seemed “deeply against the idea of a united Europe and fundamentally against the spirit of solidarity.”

Back home in the EAC, we have also had a fair share of our own challenges in addressing the pandemic. Indeed, President Yoweri Museveni has unequivocally continued to remind us of how regional challenges, including Covid-19, can be handled more effectively with combined effort.

“You see how we’re suffering. A simple disease like corona is not easy to control because we are not acting together as East Africa,” the president said recently, after nomination as the NRM flag-bearer for the forthcoming presidential elections.

“We need to address the issues of EAC integration as a strategic goal. We need to talk with our brothers and sisters…” he added

The EAC has, however, undertaken the significant efforts in the Covid-19 fight, notwithstanding the aforementioned challenges.

From the onset, even when countries the world over were implementing strict lockdown measures, including the closure of borders, the EAC developed health guidelines to be applied both at regional and national level. The ministers of EAC Affairs, Finance and Trade agreed on specific interventions to address the issue of the cost and availability of essential goods including:

• Boosting local production of goods related to Covid-19 including masks, sanitizers, soap, and ventilators.

• Reviewing of budgets to allocate and appropriate more resources to the health sector and other sectors that are critical to responding the pandemic and subsequent recovery.

• Up-scaling trade facilitation to minimise delays in the flow of essential goods particularly Covid-19 related medical goods, food and critical services in the EAC. Thus cargo trucks continued to operate in all partner states even when it was clear that drivers were one of the sources of the spread of the virus.

The EAC thus agreed on the Regional Electronic Cargo and Driver Tracking System, (RECDTS). Leveraging on the existing Electronic Cargo Tracking System that has hitherto been used by revenue authorities to monitor the movement of cargo, the RECDTS will help in sharing of cross border truck drivers and crews’ Covid-19 test statuses.

Once a cargo crew is tested, an electronic medical certificate is generated that will remain valid for 14 days and will be accessible electronically at the designated sites of screening across the partner states that the driver or crew will use during transit. And no transit cargo will commence a journey without a driver being tested and aligned with the system.

Further still, as part of the pandemic preparedness efforts of the community, the EAC was able to deploy mobile laboratories in all partner states to augment the national governments in the testing of the virus.

The mobile laboratories were equipped with modern equipment with the ability to diagnose most pathogens such as Ebola and Covid-19.  A total of nine mobile laboratories are being deployed to the partner states.

All in all, therefore, even when economies of the partner states have been adversely affected, and some partners have adopted different approaches in fighting Covid-19, the pandemic has been a great learning experience. There is no doubt that the EAC will come out better prepared to confront similar challenges in future.

The author is the principal public relations officer in the ministry of East African Community Affairs.

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