EDITORIAL: East African economies can be reopened, but with caution

Saturday June 6 2020

coronavirus

A staff member of Matatu sprays disinfectant inside a minibus as a preventative measure of coronavirus in downtown Nairobi, Kenya, on March 16, 2020. PHOTO | YASUYOSHI CHIBA | AFP 

By The EastAfrican

This week saw a steep jump in the number of confirmed cases of Covid-19 across East Africa, suggesting that the pandemic was entering a critical phase.

It was also the week that governments began easing movement restrictions imposed 10 weeks ago, at the height of uncertainty over how the pandemic would unfold in the resource-constrained region.

Tanzania opened its airspace to international travel on June 1 and the other member states of the East African Community are expected to follow suit over the coming weeks.

On June 4, Uganda started a gradual return of public transport across most of the country, save for regions that are located along international borders.

Uganda’s move spooked citizens who could not understand why a government that ordered a lockdown before even a dozen cases had been registered, should be opening up when all indications were that it was on the cusp of exponential spread of the pandemic.

Uganda’s move aptly captures the difficult choices that governments across the world are facing. Covid-19 kills people, but the domino effect of an economic crash could result in even more deaths that would not be directly attributable to the virus.

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While the jury is still out on the benefits of the lockdowns, going by what has so far happened, the governments cannot be denied credit for staving off what might have been.

East Africa, and Africa in general, has not seen the kind of case burden and fatalities witnessed in the developed world.

But as the pressure for easing suggests, most people feel that the peak of any benefits from the lockdowns has probably been passed and further tightening would probably only inflict economic pain. The economies have contracted rapidly, impacting government’s capacity to sustain the requisite social interventions'

The challenge for governments across the world continues to be how to prevent a health crisis from progressing into an economic crisis.

In East Africa, fiscal revenues have taken a nosedive because firms are not earning while export earnings are down to a trickle because of the break in connectivity between producer economies and international markets.

Reopening the economies is therefore the logical next step for the world but needs to be approached in a more co-ordinated manner. If the asymmetry that characterised the implementation of anti-Covid-19 measures is allowed to continue, opening up might yield the maximum dividend and, could potentially undo the gains achieved by the lockdown.

A logical first step should be opening up domestic movement. That will generate the knowledge that informs the next steps.

Covid-19 is still around and the risk of a relapse ever present. A harmonised view of the risk it poses to the region and sensible mitigation measures is necessary to preclude the risk of disruptive knee-jerk reactions.

A common testing regime would, for instance, negate the need for lengthy and costly quarantine periods for cross-border travelers.

Quarantines are not very different from lockdowns and countries that insist on them would have to effectively keep their borders shut. Without a co-ordinated reopening of the regional economy, disjointed efforts will not yield much.

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