Back in April 2020, just a month after the reality of COVID-19 arrived on our continent, the Southern African Development Community published a document on how best the bloc could confront the pandemic in its nascent stage.
Titled the “SADC Regional Response to COVID-19”, the bloc’s secretariat contextualised the problem facing all 16 members and laid out a framework for a shared reaction that could hopefully contain the pandemic in the immediate term.
A major component of that document was headlined “10 co-ordinated regional actions taken by SADC in response to COVID-19”.
Three months down the line, the region is waking up to the fact that the new coronavirus is rampant.
The statistics from all agencies and organisations who have taken it upon themselves to keep the world abreast of the evolving situation globally all say that Southern Africa is the worst-affected region on the continent in terms of COVID-19 infections.
The statistics also show that or region has the second-highest number of coronavirus-related deaths in Africa.
While it is easy for some to say that the figures for Southern Africa are distorted by the surge in infections and deaths in South Africa – which has the fifth highest caseload in the world – such an argument only serves to create stigma, breed complacency and foster fragmentation of regional responses.
But a closer look at the statistics shows that while in quantitative terms South Africa as a country is shouldering the biggest burden, in qualitative terms the rest of the region is in very serious trouble.
In qualitative terms, South Africa's number of infections increased 30 percent in the past week; but that of Namibia was up by 69 percent, that of Zambia surged 57 percent, and that of Madagascar grew by 50 percent.
Across the region – from Angola to Zimbabwe, from Botswana to Tanzania – COVID-19 is spreading at an alarming rate.
The World Health Organisation’s chief of emergencies, Michael Ryan, contextualised the situation thus earlier in the week: "While South Africa is experiencing a very, very severe event, I think it is really a marker of what the continent could face if urgent action is not taken to provide further support.
"South Africa may, unfortunately, be a precursor, it may be a warning for what will happen in the rest of Africa.”
The inescapable fact is that COVID-19 is a threat to all humanity, and Southern Africa is no exception. It is an existential threat that demands a co-ordinated, holistic approach that brings to bear the full breadth and depth of our resources.
Which takes us back to where we started from: the “10 co-ordinated regional actions taken by SADC in response to COVID-19”.
While all 10 action points are important, we will home in on three of them for present purposes.
Number three on the list reads: “Re-establishment and expansion of the Technical Committee for Co-ordinating and Monitoring the Implementation of the SADC Protocol on Health, which has been meeting on a regular basis to advise the region on health and related matters, and other socio-economic matters related to the COVID-19 pandemic.”
The point immediately after that one speaks of: “Mobilisation of regional support towards containment of the COVID-19 pandemic, and mitigation of its socio-economic impact on the SADC region.
“The regional resource mobilisation initiative builds on national initiatives, and is based on gaps identified by individual member states to respond to the COVID-19 short to long-term needs.
“Immediate needs, include, resources to support SADC member states in the acquiring of essential medicines, medical supplies and medical equipment, especially testing kits, personal protective equipment and ventilators.
“To this effect, the SADC Secretariat is working with the African Development Bank (AfDB) and the government of the Federal Republic of Germany through Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ).”
And then number five says: “The SADC Pooled Procurement Services for pharmaceuticals and medical supplies is being implemented to provide sustainable availability and access to affordable and effective essential medicine and health commodities, and member states have been encouraged to utilise this facility for the procurement of the needed supplies for prevention, treatment and control of COVID-19 and any other epidemics.”
All these things were spoken of in April, but are we seeing implementation on the ground?
There appears to be minimal co-ordination in the region as individual member states succumb to the temptation of shrinking inwards when faced by such large-scale death.
Various countries are reopening their borders in almost willy-nilly fashion without considering the regional picture.
Of course, all members of SADC are sovereign and the leadership is ultimately accountable to the citizens of their individual countries.
But within that sovereign reality exists a much more all-encompassing actuality: we are all part of a regional community, which in turn feeds into a continental comity of nations.
COVID-19 responses mandate us to have a shared approach, a regional approach.
Countries must not think that they can solve the problem in their own borders while it continues to exist next door.
Countries must severally and coherently institute internal measures to control the virus in ways that do not place other countries at risk because as long as COVID-19 exists in one territory, it exists everywhere.
We have seen that local transmission of the virus is on the rise. That means when we haphazardly open borders we are creating grounds for cross-border transmissions.
Regional co-ordination should extend to procurement, as highlighted by the SADC Secretariat in April.
SADC member states must start approaching the issue of the procurement of medical drugs and equipment as a bloc.
We need to stop paying lip service to this matter and actuate it on the ground.
The countries of the region should quickly take advantage of the basic logic of economies of scale and complementarity to plan, co-ordinate and implement both virus control regulations and procurement of necessities.