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National and regional perspectives and responses on the impact of COVID-19 on cross-border trade and Customs border management – what are we learning?

By Rwatida Mafurutu
12 Oct 2020
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National and regional perspectives and responses on the impact of COVID-19 on cross-border trade and Customs border management – what are we learning?
Photo credit: AFP

What began as a worldwide health crisis, turned out to be a global economic shock of unimaginable effects on cross-border trade for travellers, traders, transporters, and policy-makers in African countries. This blog develops selected talking points as shared by the writer as one of the panelists during the tralac alumni conference virtually held from the 28th to 29th of September 2020. This event took place in the aftermath of tralac’s main flagship annual conference held on the 21st to the 22nd of September 2020 under the banner: Trade Governance in Africa midst a Pandemic and other Global Challenges[1]. At this alumni conference, the author shared experiences on the country and the regional impact of COVID-19 on trade and related institutions. Despite making a close reference to the Zimbabwean situation, the Blog concludes by largely offering far-reaching, and sustainable alternative policy responses to the pandemic. If properly adopted, these recommendations will enhance the capacity of countries to effectively respond to the crisis now and better prepare for similar pandemics into the future.

Zimbabwe and the region’s COVID-19 trade policy response strategies

The first recorded case of coronavirus in Zimbabwe was on the 21st of March 2020[2]. This unexpected outbreak caught all government border management agencies highly unawares. Nine days later, the government embarked on what became a 34-day long total lockdown. The lockdown marked the beginning of the unprecedented cross-border trade-related economic challenges to the country, the region, and beyond. To restrain the cross-border transmission of this deadly virus so as to save lives and livelihoods, Zimbabwe and all other Member States had no option but to implement a tranche of tight mitigatory policy response measures. These measures included the closure of airports and land borders, suspension of passenger international flights, outright prohibition of foreign visitors, and mandatory 14-day quarantine period for returning Zimbabwean residents among others. In principle, these measures were largely informed by the World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines and recommendations.

Against this background of strict restrictions on the movement of people, the government exempted the movement of emergency supplies, essential goods, and services during this pandemic. These exemptions were permitted under stringent regulations which included mandatory temperature checks, compulsory use of respiratory masks, obligatory hands sanitization, strict observation of social distance, limiting crew members in cargo trucks, and observation of stricter transit requirements.

Border measures and their impact on trade

All borders, airports, and inland stations were closed, except for the movement of essential goods and services. Critical areas were identified at all ports of entry and these were operated by a skeleton staff. Office counters and doors were physically closed for walk-in clients and physical submission of clearance documents. Daily business operating hours were largely reduced while the rest of the staff were working from home. Processing of certificates of origin, sanitary and phytosanitary certificates, import and export licenses, rebate concessions, and all correspondences were done electronically and directed to group e-mails for re-routing to the respective sections or units for subsequent attention. Payment of excise duty on locally manufactured ethanol re-directed for the manufacture of alcohol-based sanitizers was waived. On the import side, the government extended the rebate of duty on essential goods imported for the fight against coronavirus disease (COVID-19), through the statutory amendment of the existing general regulations.

As these measures functionally addressed the health crisis of the pandemic, they simultaneously impacted cross-border trade in unprecedented ways. To being critical in curtailing the cross-border transmission of the disease, the impact of these measures became new institutionalized forms of national, regional, and continental non-tariff barriers to trade across Africa. This meant an additional overload of work to Customs border administrations across the regions and beyond became unavoidable

Zimbabwean busy border posts like Beitbridge and Chirundu One-Stop Border Post (along the North-South Corridor) and Forbes border post (Beira Corridor) were characterized by long winding queues of commercial trucks stretching for as long as 15km to 30km on either side of the borders. At one time, the total closure of the Tlokweng land border post by Botswana meant that commercial trucks from South Africa via its Kopfontein border post had to come through Beitbridge. This compounded the already long queues of commercial trucks at Messina-Beitbridge borders, with the effects spilling into Zambia. In the process, this resulted in prolonged delays that would take a considerable number of days before a truck could cross-over. Both inbound and transiting essential goods and services were severely delayed. Available Non-intrusive inspection (NII) equipment such as electronic scanners and electronic cargo sealing facilities were overwhelmed. Communication through electronic mails resulted in an exponential upsurge in the volume of these e-mails against limited computer systems capacities. Common challenges to African countries such as unpredictable power outages, sessions of weak and unstable internet connectivity technically delayed the processing of intra-cross-border trade documents across the region. Incompatibility of systems in use between Customs and the different systems used by different public agencies resulted in some attachments failing to open. The subsequent high traffic and huge volumes of attachments congested the servers and the computer storage capacities. Due diligence was needed for determining and classifying goods that qualify for COVID-19 rebates, given that specific tariffs were used to enlist qualifying essential goods. This resulted in the added workload to the skeletal staff who needed to make sure that this dispensation would not be abused by extending it through misclassification of non-qualifying goods.

Recommendations – for now and post-COVID 19

In the context of cross-border trade, this global pandemic extensively exposed the weaknesses in the trading system (both at regional and national levels) and the deep level of unpreparedness by government trade-related institutions across Africa for a crisis of this global magnitude.

The digitalization of transport and trade procedures for enhancing the real-time clearance and supply of essential goods and services during COVID-19 and beyond is strategic. In fact, there is a need to extensively bring all manual clearance processes under digitization (automating existing manual and paper-based processes through the transformative processes of digitalization or electronic automation). Aggressive capitalization of the digital economy will create an enabling environment for other goods (not necessarily essential goods and services only) to start crossing the borders amid the pandemic. Deployment of digital solutions is critical in combating the spread of pandemics along trade corridors. Eventually, women, youth, small to medium businesses, and informal traders will be able to trade under specifically crafted cross-border management responses that mitigate against their potential risks. This is particularly very important for Zimbabwe given its high informal economy characterized by cross-border trade dominated by vulnerable groups such as women and the youth in cross-border trade.

Electronic digitalization must be followed by the deliberate strategic adoption of harmonized and coordinated common border procedures and formalities across the Member States. Harmonization of formalities lowers the spread of the virus at the same time creating synergies for effective cross-border trade facilitation. The productive partnership between neighbouring countries or at regional economic configuration level characterized by investing in common infrastructure in times of pandemics is critical. Providing express lanes for essential goods and low-risk merchandise complemented by the use of pre-arrival clearance facilities is the way to go. Leveraging the shared integrated computer-based Customs risk management approaches among Customs administrations through their Mutual Assistance Agreements (MAA) will extensively reduce duplication of formalities from one border to the next. This is also very important as disruptions in the regional and continental supply chain will be limited.

Border authorities should expedite the development of Combined Border Management System, Single Window approaches, and the One-Stop Border Post concept. They must continue building upon current potentials and successes achieved to date. There is a need to continuously upgrade information communication technological systems, ensure strong and reliable internet connectivity (which are dependable and efficient). Replace the use of Outlook e-mails (together with the attachment of scanned documents) by the use of real-time online electronic platforms for paperless processes. Enhancing expanded Electronic Cargo Tracking System (ECTS) and NII Systems will go a long way in reviving the economies. The use of a common or single regional electronic cargo tracking system will imply that high-risk in-transit cargo will enjoy enhanced and secure free passage until they reach the final destination.

Creating an enabling environment for boosting intra-African trade particularly in times of crisis is critical. To achieve this, African countries must start right away to seriously commit and bind themselves to rules-based trading systems within their existing regional economic configurations, and also implement the commitments that they have made in the World Trade Organisation (WTO) Trade Facilitation Agreement. Transparency, fairness, and predictability are essential for enhanced intra-African trade particularly in this 21st century which is characterized by pandemics and other natural challenges.


[1] tralac Annual Conference 2020 https://www.tralac.org/events/article/14905-tralac-annual-conference-2020.html

[2] Zimbabwe records first coronavirus case https://www.africanews.com/2020/03/21/zimbabwe-records-first-coronavirus-case//

About the Author(s)

Rwatida Mafurutu

Rwatida Mafurutu

Rwatida Mafurutu is a career expert of more than twenty-seven years of technical experience in the management, administration and implementation of Customs & Excise and Internal Taxes. He has a keen research interest in regional and continental trade and policy issues in Africa. Rwatida is a holder of Master of Commerce Specializing in Management Practice in the Field of Trade Law and Policy (University of Cape Town), Master of Philosophy in Taxation (University of Pretoria) and a Master of Science in Fiscal Studies (National University of Science and Technology).

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