Coping with Covid after the AfCFTA has been launched
The COVID-19 Pandemic was a massive shock to the world, how it trades, and how it is governed. It arrived in a world of sovereign states, albeit that some of them (such as the European Union) have succeeded in establishing deep integration arrangements with supra-national institutions that can act on behalf of the collective. In combatting the pandemic this gave the EU member states some important benefits and additional clout. There is a lesson in this example, effective inter-State institutions with the required powers allow for better responses when collective action is necessary.
Traditional state-focused actions are not adequate when it comes to policies and their execution vis-à-vis pandemics. The Corona virus is not a once-off event which can be tackled via unilateral governmental action, although that must also be part of how we prepare for future disasters. National, regional, and continental strategies for more resilient governance are vital.
Africa’s initial reaction to the pandemic shows that public health services were inadequately prepared. The same was true of regional integration arrangements. Border measures which were imposed resulted in restrictions on trade in essential medical equipment. In the SADC region the Member States all imposed restrictions on the movement of people (including truck drivers) and therefore on goods too. South Africa, for example, declared a state of national disaster, banned gatherings and social events, and put a ban on the sale of alcohol and tobacco. These policies were necessary at the time and based on scientific advice.
Under traditional multilateral trade rules such restrictions are permitted provided they are targeted, temporary, and transparent. Article XI of the 1994 General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) prohibits export bans and restrictions, other than duties, taxes, or other charges. However, it permits members to use restrictions temporarily “to prevent or relieve critical shortages of foodstuffs or other products essential” to the exporting country. In the case of foodstuffs, the WTO Agreement on Agriculture requires members to give “due consideration to the effects on food security” of importing countries. The General Exceptions allowed in GATT Article XX provide for policy flexibility, including to protect health, provided restrictions do not “constitute a means of arbitrary or unjustifiable discrimination,” or a “disguised restriction on international trade,” among other conditions.
The restrictions that have been imposed in order to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus, as necessary as they were at the time, were not a solution. And they caused havoc to domestic and regional economies. The international travel ban meant that thousands of tourists cancelled their trips to Africa. Two years after the pandemic began, less than 12% of Africa’s population is fully vaccinated, in contrast to a large majority in high-income countries who have received booster shots. This adds another crisis. Public Health services in Africa is a major concern.
The WTO TRIPS waiver has been a prominent aspect of the debate about combatting COVID. The TRIPS waiver refers to a proposal, advanced by the governments of South Africa and India in October 2020, to the World Trade Organisation (WTO) to waive intellectual property rights protection for technologies needed to prevent, contain, or treat COVID-19 ”until widespread vaccination is in place globally, and the majority of the world’s population has developed immunity.” WTO member states have agreed to keep 2 proposals on the agenda of the TRIPS Council:
India and South Africa requesting a waiver to temporarily waive intellectual property (IP) rights on COVID-19 medical products by a group of high-income countries including the European Union (EU), the United Kingdom and Switzerland)
Proposal by the European Union for a draft General Council declaration on the TRIPS Agreement and Public Health in the circumstances of a pandemic.
What does the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) Agreement say or imply about the role this arrangement could play in respect of new generation challenges such as pandemics and natural disasters of growing devastation? What can be expected from its institutions? This debate is in its infancy.
There have been well-targeted practical responses. The Economic Commission of Africa proposed the AfCFTA anchored Pharmaceutical Initiative. Ten pilot African countries (Comoros, Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Madagascar, Mauritius, Kenya, Rwanda, Seychelles, and Sudan) have been selected for this purpose. There have also been efforts to create fiscal space to the African Governments and to address the emerging trend of rising government debts.
There are obvious lessons to be learned. One of them is that there is an important role for trade during such a crisis to ensure food security and access to essential products. Trade facilitation is particularly important, as is the role played by services such as transport, communication, distribution, and healthcare services.
COVID-19 is not the first crisis that we have faced and will not be the last. Governance responses constitute a key element in strategies dealing with pandemics. Effective collective governance must a key element of future responses.
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