The present pre-occupation with internal processes of dealing with the corona virus (Covid-19) by many countries of the world is indeed commendable.
By Zenzo Moyo
Besides the fact that such approaches afford these countries an opportunity to occasionally assess the extent to which their strategies and interventions are bearing fruit, it also enables each country to engage in remedial measures that are within its means socially, politically and economically.
However, as Covid-19 continues to spread at the rate of a wildfire, and its rapaciousness quickly becoming an existential problem for every human being, it is also becoming apparent that sooner rather than later, individual governments will regret why they adopted narrow, inward-looking strategies in dealing with this global virus.
Globalisation by its very nature peripheralises the usefulness of borders and physical divisions that exist between countries.
No doubt Covid 19 is a global challenge wreaking havoc in a globalised world.
Consider, for instance, the rapidity with which it spread from Wuhan in China to cover the rest of Asia, Europe, the Americas and Africa.
It took the virus less than three months to register its presence in every corner of the world.
It is a virus that knows no class, race, gender or nationality. In a way, it is a great equaliser. To this extent, the problem that will soon confront us is the realisation that as nation-states, WE responded to a global pandemic – occurring in a globalised world – in an idiosyncratic manner, which is not only incapable of stemming the tide, but also impotent in dealing with reinfections that are likely to emerge post the first phase. In other words, the ‘nationalised’ response we have adopted as countries does not equate to the magnitude of the pandemic faced.
Take for example, the lack of synchrony by Southern African countries in announcing and adopting lockdown procedures, and what the procedures in themselves should entail.
South Africa and Namibia effected their 21-day lock downs on the 26th of March, and is up for re-assessment on the 16 of April. Zimbabwe’s 21-day lockdown began on the 30th of March, scheduled to run until the 20th of April.
Zambia only closed borders, however still allowing free movement within the country.
Botswana’s 28-day long state of emergency and lockdown began on the 2nd of April. While the Kingdom of eSwatini began its twenty-day partial lockdown on the 27th of March, the Democratic Republic of Congo has only announced ‘lockdowns’ targeted at specific cities such as the capital, Kinshasa, which was locked down for only four days, and Lubumbashi for two days.
Mozambique on the other hand has just declared a state of emergency, which theoretically gives the president the right to decree a lockdown, but this has not been activated yet apparently because the infection rate has not reached exponential rates.
Lesotho’s lockdown began on the 29th of March and is scheduled to end by the 21st of April.
The countries cited here are all from the Sadc region. Most of them share borders and, and in the case of South Africa, plays host to millions of citizens from its neighbours.
Sadc should have played a more active coordinative role to ensure a high degree of alignment in the strategies and procedures, more so because climatic and social conditions within the region are almost similar.
What is clear from this popular lockdown strategy is that each country adopted it without any regard for the interconnectedness of the region, thereby potentially nullifying or reversing any gains that would be achieved by the strategy. For example, if South Africa concludes on the 16th of April that infection levels have dropped drastically, and the curve has been flattened, will it be able to open its borders while lockdown procedures in neighbouring countries are still in effect?
What guarantees will each country require from its neighbours to ascertain that migrating citizens are now free of the virus, and should be allowed to travel to other countries?
The first thing that should avoided collectively is to allow the virus to embed itself within the region.
More so because the entire Sad region (and the continent) is moving into winter soon, and winter has conditions that are friendly to the corona virus.
South Africa has rolled our mass testing for the virus, expanding beyond those who exhibit symptoms.
This is a good strategy, but its utility will be negated if it is done in isolation, not replicated in other countries in the region.
Narrow internal strategies of fighting the virus can only be of utility with concomitant adoption of extreme measures, such as permanently banning cross border traveling.
Even if countries such as South Africa were to intensify the erection of fences along its borders, this will not stop illegal immigrants from coming or leaving the country.
The only way to ensure that infections and reinfections of Covid-19 do not persist is to adopt a regional approach to dealing with the pandemic. Without adopting synchronised strategies, the fightback against the corona virus will be like mimicking a pre-school relay game, replete with false starts. One of the perceptive recommendations in a 2019 publication by Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection (MISTRA): Epidemics and the Health of African Nations is that in a globalised world like the present, controlling and eliminating pandemics can best be achieved through policies and strategies that are aligned across countries and regions since diseases can easily cross borders.
Additional to the above, sub-Saharan Africa has the weakest health systems in the world. Thus, the best chance in fighting the pandemic lies in a synergised approach, primarily aimed at combating the pandemic from spreading not only within a single country, but also within the region.
This might even entail some level of resource sharing to support countries whose health systems may not be able to respond to the virus.
Too hasty critics may look at this suggestion as insensitive considering that all countries are affected, and therefore have first responsibility to their citizens.
This concern might be true and plausible in the short term, but over time, the benefits of ensuring every country is free from the virus should not be underestimated.
This is why China, or Russia, will find it not only proper, but also to the best of their interests to donate medical supplies to fight corona virus to the United States of America, their sworn enemy.
The proposal to be emphasised here is that even though countries may continue to adopt national interventions such as sourcing extra medical supplies, training more front-line staff, and providing protective clothing, we now need to urgently adopt broader and more synchronised strategies at a regional level.
A widely broadcasted virtual conversation of health ministers of Sadc countries could be a good start. These regional strategies should also be further synergised to build towards a global strategy.
Border lockdowns and stay at home strategies can only be temporary measures. It cannot be overemphasised that the challenge of reinfections remains a high possibility.
Dr Zenzo Moyo is a Researcher at the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection (MISTRA).
In 2019, MISTRA launched a publication titled Epidemics and the health of African Nations. This book offers several recommendations on dealing with pandemics.