Covid-19 and SADC inertia

As Covid-19 continues to unabatedly wreak havoc with over 500 000 confirmed cases and over 26 600 confirmed deaths reported globally, Africa stands on the precipice of a major humanitarian catastrophe. The number of confirmed cases has increased by more than 800% in the last 10 days, with Southern Africa accounting for nearly 28% of the 4,282 reported cases to date. The hazards lying ahead have significant consequences for poverty eradication, human security, health systems strengthening and overall development programmes for a continent already impoverished due to a multiplicity of intertwined factors. The health care systems in the vast majority of African countries can barely respond to the everyday health challenges and would certainly baulk and cringe in the face of Covid-19. The challenges of Covid-19 transcend health care, whose implications are an affront to statehood. The inescapable global reality is that no single state wields the requisite capabilities to efficaciously respond to Covid-19. The United Nations has already signaled that Africa requires approximately three trillion dollars to respond to Covid-19. As such, the focus typically shifts to interrogating the role of Regional Economic Communities (RECs) and other likeminded forums such as the G20. In Africa there are at least eight RECs, including the Southern African Development Community (SADC). Organizationally RECs provide both the structure and system overseeing the Africa Union’s (AU) Agenda 2063.

In Southern Africa, the unraveling threat posed by Covid-19 draws attention to the SADC Protocol on Health which provides the strategic nous for cooperation and coordinated approaches to combat, control and manage communicable diseases through a plethora of joint actions. It is without contestation that Covid-19 presents a grave threat to human social development, peace and security, political stability and trade. Considering the devastation Covid-19 carts, the SADC response has been pedestrian. Over 340 million eager and concerned citizens spread across the 16 SADC Member States anticipated the convening of an Extra-Ordinary Summit of Heads or State or Government, to provide regional strategic guidance and a coordinated response to Covid-19. The Summit as opposed to the recently held extra-ordinary meeting of SADC Ministers of Health would conclude with a communiqué, clearly demonstrating commitment at the highest level to address the pandemic. Typically the Minister’s indaba ended with a number of recommendations which are devoid of the needed bite to halt the further spread of the pandemic. Further reflections on Regional Indicative Strategic Development Plan (RISDP), the region’s main development blueprint would underline why the deafening silence on Covid-19 is a missed opportunity for SADC especially taken in the grand scheme of regional integration.

Indeed, the inertia displayed by SADC in the face of Covid-19 is contradictory to the vaunted gospel of regional integration. Rather, it portrays a structure which is indifferent to issues related to human social security and development but one overly concerned with political stability and security, evidenced by the swiftness in responding to political upheavals in the regional. For instance, SADC intervened to quell perennial political conflicts in Lesotho in 1998, 2007, 2014 and 2017; the military intervention in the DRC in 1998 and the political mediation in Zimbabwe following an electoral dispute in 2008. In all instances the Summit and the Troika convened multiple times in pursuance of political stability. Covid-19 presents a unique threat, which will destabilize intra-regional trade which remains very low at around 15% in comparison to other RECs, stymie the free movement of persons and further slowdown intra-regional efforts to combat communicable diseases. Inadvertently, these developments do not bode well for regional integration but only serve to embolden the undercurrents of nationalism and bilateralism which are an affront to the ideals of the “SADC We Want”. Already, nationalism has been shown to be the feeding trough of Xenophobia and Afrophobia.

In the absence of a regionally coordinated response to Covid-19, Member States have taken arbitrary actions bordering on either total or partial closure of national borders, posing a threat to the livelihoods, food and income security of millions of households who rely on informal cross border trade. In monetary terms, it infers an untimely disruption to trade valued at around US$ 20million per annum which is approximately 40% of intra-regional trade. Interestingly, the informal cross border trade is dominated by women who constitute about 70-80% of the traders. Thus the sudden suspension of cross-border activity will frustrate regional programmes on women empowerment and social and cultural exchanges, all of which are vital ingredients for human and social development. What the world is still learning with Covid-19 is that whilst fatalities are higher among infected men at around 60%, women still bear a disproportionate burden of the pandemic which is related to the multiple roles they play in situations of humanitarian crisis. Indeed, women will provide care and support for infected household members and they have the added burden of ensuring mental wellness of families experiencing prolonged confinement imposed by the lockdowns.

The repercussions of a weak coordinated regional response to Covid-19 also further complicates the curious case of millions of migrants who ordinarily have no legal standing to access healthcare services in the host country. The situation is further exacerbated by migrants’ diminished personal capacity to meet the catastrophic costs emanating from the large scale lockdowns as governments attempt to curtail the spread of Covid-19. Added to that is the unlikelihood of host governments’ prioritizing migrants welfare over citizens. Predictably, migrants will be trapped in the throes of Covid-19, albeit without healthcare, social security or socioeconomic recourse. Already there are reports of migrants relocating to their countries of origin where they face the same challenges that caused their initial economic dislocation. If anything, Covid-19 is laying bare the institutional cracks inherent in the mantra of regional integration and “The SADC We Want”. Certainly, in the court of citizen opinion, SADC seems to be stuttering, and is feeding the growing disillusionment among the citizens on the vision of the “SADC We Want”.

SADC citizens would naturally yearn for “homegrown” remedial actions, drawing lessons from SADC’s exceptional response to HIV/AIDS and West Africa’s charge against the Ebola outbreak of 2014-2016 among other humanitarian emergencies to have bedeviled Africa in the most recent past. As part of the regional response to Covid-19, SADC should consider the welfare and wellbeing of migrants and refugees, providing passage for agricultural products and commodities, medicines and critical skills across borders.

Source: Taurayi Nyandoro

*Mr Taurayi Nyandoro, a Social Worker practicing in Zimbabwe, writes in his personal capacity