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Namanga border with Kenya.

Fifth Estate

We need harmonized COVID-19 Protocols within the EAC region

Movement across country borders in the East African Community is almost a punishment for those wishing to travel simply because of the absence of common protocols on COVID 19. It is very demanding and almost impossible for citizens, either doing business or wishing to be tourists to move across country borders because of the application of obscure requirements relating to COVID-19.

Relevant ministries in individual countries and the EAC must move and bring the required trust and harmonization of the COVID-19 protocols across the region, for hurting regional trade and travel and minimize more disruptions. Trade was already picking up and unnecessary bottlenecks need to be re-examined.

I say this aware that the EAC Secretariat has initiated efforts to enhance the capacity of staff at the eight international airports in the region on the prevention of and response to the spread of COVID-19 with focus on strengthening surveillance, building robust early-warning systems and coordinating public health responses as a way of preventing, detecting, and responding to the pandemic. Why the different approaches and mistrust is worrying and costing citizens in the region.

Each country seems to have individual protocols, which in many cases are overriding or over-demanding to travelers, and making COVID-19 a reason not to travel, which is frustrating to traders in the region. Regional trading blocks are critical especially for food security in the region, with the adverse effects of climate change in the region, which has seen drought, famine, and poor yields from farming. Initially, it was a huge burden to truck drivers moving across the borders, the money required within the various countries, the multiple irritation of the COVID-19 medical tests at each country border, and anxiety is too much for people.

A person does a COVID-19 test in Kenya at USD90, and travels within 72 hours to Tanzania for example, on arrival in Tanzania, they must do a rapid COVID-19 test and wait for results at USD25, and should they stay in Tanzania for more than 96 hours, they must on leaving undertake another test that will allow them into Kenya. Those are three tests at USD140 in nearly four days. Imagine the invasive insertion of the wires into their noses and throats for the guys traveling either as tourists or business? Until 6th June, 2021, going to Ethiopia required the test in Kenya, and direct 14 days into quarantine in Addis at the traveler’s cost- this has since been revised and the requirements changed so long as you have a negative COVID-19 test from your country of origin done at approved AU facilities.

The Regional Development and Cooperation Strategy (RDCS), USAID/Kenya and East Africa (USAID/KEA) notes that to protect communities from the emergence and spread of infectious diseases, regional health and cross-sectoral systems must be strengthened and cross-border collaboration must increase including the facilitation of health information-sharing across borders and transport corridors and to sustainably finance health systems that address management of the migrant populations.

In a recent report released by TradeMark East Africa (TMEA), in partnership with the UN Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) and African Economic Research Consortium (AERC), titled “Waving or Drowning? The Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on East African Trade”, it was noted that although intra-regional trade initially suffered serious disruptions, it quickly recovered, as partner states ensured the movement of essential goods and adopted measures to minimize disruption on the main transport corridors while still observing the COVID-19 health protocols.

AERC Executive Director Professor Njuguna Ndungu noted that  “the advent of the COVID-19 sent shockwaves into the emerging new sectors, such as tourism, manufacturing and financial intermediation thus compromising the recovery. Several indicators from diverse studies seem to indicate that African economies may suffer significant economic contractions due to the pandemic. However, the full impact on livelihoods is yet to be ascertained as the uncertainty surrounding the behavior and the intensity of the pandemic is still unfolding.”

TMEA CEO Frank Matsaert said; “Data from this research informs us of the important role trade facilitation plays in the region economy. We need to ramp up trade facilitation efforts to spur innovation, and we urge the government to incentivizes priority goods so to protect lives.”

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Director of UNECA in Eastern Africa, Dr. Mama Keita said,, “Given the potential of trade to promote economic growth and sustainable development, it is extremely important for us to take a close look at the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on trade in East Africa. This report sends out important messages, notably the urgent need to diversify countries’ economies and export base if they are to be more resilient to external shocks and register strong and sustained growth rates in the future”.

CEO of East Africa Business Community Dr. Peter Mutuku Mathuki, Government of the EAC Partner States should prioritize vaccination for Truck Drivers, implement a regional coordinated approach in fighting the pandemic and harmonize testing charges to reduce cargo transit times.”

The report noted that the transport and logistics sector took a hit at the beginning of the crisis, with high levels of congestion at borders and ports. Immediately after the outbreak, the ship dwells time at Mombasa port increased by 48% and Berth time increased by 52%. Cargo transit from Mombasa Port to Malaba (the border between Kenya and Uganda) increased from 7 days to 11 days by the second quarter of 2020. The time taken to transport goods via the Mombasa-Busia route was nearly three times higher. On the Central Corridor, the transit time from Dar-es-Salaam to various cities in the neighbouring countries almost doubled. The marked increase in transit times highlights the challenges at border points Another major casualty from the crisis has been informal cross-border trade, which has struggled to recover from the regional restrictions on cross-border travel even after the opening of borders.  For example, the report’s analysis of Uganda data suggests that even the reopening of Uganda’s borders in September 2020 did not revive informal cross-border trade. The resultant impacts include loss of income in border communities and a reversal of women’s economic empowerment.

The author is the Deputy CEO at the Media Council of Kenya.

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