As African countries begin to reopen land borders and air space, the World Health Organisation has called on governments to take effective measures to mitigate the risk of a surge in COVID-19 infections on the continent.
WHO Regional Director for Africa, Matshidiso Moeti, made the call on Thursday during a virtual press conference in Brazzaville, while giving an update on the status of the crisis in Africa.
Ms Moeti said the call became necessary due to decisions of some of the African countries to reopen their borders months after lockdown aimed at curbing the pandemic.
She said while open borders are vital for the free flow of goods and people, initial analysis by WHO found that lockdown along with public health measures reduced the spread of COVID-19.
Ms Moeti said “air travel is vital to the economic health of countries, but as we take to the skies again, we cannot let our guard down. Our new normal still requires stringent measures to stem the spread of COVID-19.”
During the early days of the pandemic, many African governments acted swiftly by implementing confinement and travel restrictions to contain the importation of the virus from hotspots zone like Aisa, Europe and the USA.
Africa recorded its first case of COVID-19 in Egypt on February 14 through a traveller returning from an hotspot in Asia. Afterwards, many countries on the continent reported confirmed cases through travellers from Asia, Europe and the United States.
In the WHO African Region, 36 countries closed their borders to international travel. Eight countries, including Nigeria, suspended flights from countries with high COVID-19 transmission and others had partial or no restrictions.
This had affected the free flow of passengers and some goods, thereby having a negative impact on the economies of many countries, including Nigeria.
However, some countries are beginning to ease the lockdown and open their borders and resumption of commercial flights and airport operations.
So far Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Tanzania and Zambia have resumed commercial flights.
Nigeria has announced the reopening of its airports for domestic flights from July 8.
Most of the 15-member Economic Community of West African States are expected to open their airspace for international travels on July 21.
As it stands now, African countries have been reporting relatively low numbers of cases. Countries like Nigeria, South Africa, are witnessing increasing community transmission of COVID-19.
As of the time of reporting, Africa has reported over 418,000 confirmed cases with over 10,000 deaths.
To resume international air travel, WHO recommends that countries assess the epidemiological situation to determine whether maintaining restrictions outweigh the economic costs of reopening borders.
“It is also crucial to determine whether the health system can cope with a spike in imported cases and whether the surveillance and contact tracing system can reliably detect and monitor cases,” it stated.
The UN health agency said even with border restrictions, “imported cases have sometimes brought back COVID-19 to countries which had not reported cases for a length of time.”
An example is Seychelles which had not had a locally transmitted case since April 6, but in the last week, 66 new cases – all crew members of an international fishing vessel – have been recorded.
Ms Moeti said it is important that countries have systems in place at points of entry including airports.
“Comprehensive entry and exit screening should be considered based on risk assessment and cost-benefit analysis, and as part of the overall national response strategy.
“Such screening may target, as a priority, direct flights from areas with community transmission. In addition, observance of preventive measures such as personal hygiene, cough etiquette, physical distancing remains crucial. Passengers should be registered and followed up, and if they develop symptoms be advised to inform health authorities,” she added.
“The resumption of commercial flights in Africa will facilitate the delivery of crucial supplies such as testing kits, personal protective equipment and other essential health commodities to areas which need them most,” Ms Moeti said.
“It will also ensure that experts, who can support the response can finally get on the ground and work.”
According to the International Air Transport Association, the impact of COVID-19 on airlines is severe.
The association said African airlines could lose $6 billion of passenger revenue compared to 2019 and job losses in aviation and related industries could grow to 3.1 million, half of the region’s 6.2 million aviation-related employment,
Another analysis by the International Civil Aviation Organisation also noted that “in the worst-case scenario, international air traffic in Africa could see a 69 per cent drop in international traffic capacity and 59 per cent decline in domestic capacity.”
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