Covid-19 puts SADC region at crossroads

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Southern Times Writers

As the coronavirus (Covid-19) continues to surge across the world, anxiety over the virus and signs of recession are creating a nightmare for the Southern African region. 

SADC countries have instituted drastic measures, including cancelling flights to and from key tourist destinations which are badly affected by the Covid-19 virus as well as banning public gatherings in a bid to contain the pandemic.

Southern African nations are expected to count losses across the wider sectors of the economy, with tourism being the biggest hit.

The losses are expected to be staggering. With a travel ban imposed to high risk countries such as China, Italy, Japan, South Korea, Iran, the United States of America, and the UK. As a result, the mining, tourism, arts, sports and entertainment industries throughout the SADC region are reeling.

Already the presidents of Namibia, Mozambique, South Africa, Tanzania, Zambia, and Zimbabwe have announced measures to curb and contain the spread of the virus.  Namibia, South Africa and Zambia had by the time of writing confirmed cases of the virus within their borders, with Zambia being the latest country in the region to be affected after confirming two cases.  

In Windhoek, the Namibian government said it had strengthened its measures of preparedness and response to Covid-19 as a way of managing the pandemic.

Two weeks ago when Namibia confirmed its first coronavirus case which was detected on a Romanian couple, President Hage Geingob immediately banned in-bound and out-bound travel to and from Qatar, Ethiopia and Germany with immediate effect for a period of 30 days.

Namibian President Hage Geingob, his South African counterpart, Cyril Ramaphosa, and Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa have already announced severe measures to protect their citizenry.

The presidents froze travelling plans by key government officials until the situation has improved. 

President Geingob cancelled the country’s 30th independence celebrations which had been slated for 21 March, and all public gatherings and banned all flights in and from Qatar, Ethiopia and Germany which are the key connecting routes to Europe, Asia and the United States of America.

He also announced that his inauguration which was set to coincide with the 30th independence anniversary will now be a closed door affair.

President Mnangagwa also cancelled the country’s 40th independence celebrations and the country’s trade showcase, the Zimbabwe International Trade Fair (ZITF), and banned public gatherings of more than 100 people.

In Namibia, there were six suspected cases which, however, tested negative. However, due to the complexity of the pandemic, additional measures were put in place to prevent the spread of the pandemic.

Speaking during a media briefing at State House on Tuesday this week, Minister of Health and Social Services, Kambuli Shangula, said the country was instituting measures at the ports of entry, within uniformed forces, at health facilities, among the general public, and economic activities.

Namibia has suspended the issuing of entry visas to the Schengen states of Europe, China, Iran, Korea, the UK, the USA and Japan at air and sea ports of entries. The travel ban is to be reviewed regularly.

The country has also put a temporary travel suspension for 30 days for Namibians or permanent residents except for special cases with prior authorisation by the Ministries of Health and Social Services, and Home Affairs and Immigration.  Exceptional cases will include persons seeking medical treatment, essential services such as humanitarian assistance, truck drivers bringing food and other essential commodities, and Namibians returning home, among others.

While there is restricted entry to the most affected countries, compulsory screening will be conducted for verification and quarantine imposed were necessary.

All leisure, business and social travel like tourism is now suspended, and Namibians who are residents in other countries considering to visit Namibia have urged to postpone such visits.

In order to facilitate work, international meetings should either be attended by officials from missions abroad or participation through video or tele-conferencing.

The country has resolved that all international scheduled flights, private chartered flights to land at Hosea Kutako and Walvis Bay international airports and all scheduled passenger flights to and from countries where there is active local transmission be temporarily suspended for 30 days with immediate effect.  This suspension is exclusive of cargo and emergency flights to and from Namibia.

The cabinet agreed that there will be strict disinfection of aircrafts and training of airport staff on infection prevention and control and provision of appropriate mandatory screening for Covid-19 to be conducted at all points of entry in the country,  thermo-guns to be placed at all checkpoints and roadblocks for screening in-land travelers. All returning Namibians and permanent residents arriving from countries at high risk or from affected countries will be subject to supervised self-quarantine from 14 days (self-quarantine for mild/asymptomatic persons).

Borders with South Africa, including air travel, will, however, remain open to serve as points of entry for Namibians returning home and exit point for visitors from Namibia, and to facilitate trade between the two countries.

There will be deployment of multi-disciplinary professionals like health professionals, logisticians and other professionals from the army, police and correctional services to complement their counterparts at the Ministry of Health and Social Services and the National Health Emergency Management Committee. Funds will be availed for training, equipment, and materials.

Correctional officers, court officials, police and city police will be issued with infection prevention materials when conducting their duties; all court hearings to be conducted without attendance by members of the public; all pending matters in court will be postponed in absentia for 30 days; there will be  separate detection facilities for new incoming accused persons or suspects; and routine screening should be conducted before admission. Decongestion of police cells will also be implemented for a period of 30 days, visits to correctional facilities and police holding cells will be restricted to limited numbers of family members as determined by the relevant authorities.

The Namibian government has also suspended large public gatherings of not more than 50 people, while schools, religious gatherings, weddings, and all parades for uniformed forces have been suspended until further notice.

For non-Covid-19 related funerals, families are strongly advised to promote hand washing, respiratory hygiene and social distancing at the event and advise mourners to wear masks. Deaths and funerals related to Covid-19 will be handled by the government with psychosocial support to the family.

Owners of public transport vehicles are required to provide hand sanitisers and masks to all their passengers and enforce the laws on overloading strictly. Precautionary measures will be put in place during livestock auctions so as to prevent transmission of the virus in line with the directive on minimising mass gatherings as determined by the relevant authorities and stakeholders. Trade fairs, sports activities, events, and demonstrations are to be postponed.

Accommodation establishments throughout the country must now provide sanitisers and masks for all staff; educate guests to have own protective measures; have full travel history of the guests and contact health authorities immediately when they notice guests are ill, especially with symptoms related Covid-19.

Water supply to communities is key in the prevention of Covid-19, and service providers have been urged to make sure that water is available to the public, through water tanker services and other means; scale up the provision of water supply at informal settlements and other strategic places through water tankers; public awareness messages and campaigns should be intensified using all media avenues and platforms to reach every community member in all regions. Shops, shopping malls and supermarkets must put measures in place to ensure and enhance hygiene at all times to protect all clients and customers, such as the provision of alcohol-based hand sanitisers and face masks for employees.

On economic relations, Namibia is to engage South Africa on the reciprocity of visa arrangements for business people and on the exit and entry points that should not be closed to allow for the flow of trade and further mitigate shortage of supplies to Namibia. The cattle auctions should be allowed to continue provided that the number of people is limited to the traders and no children should be allowed at the auctions. the Ministry of Finance and Bank of Namibia will conduct a thorough impact assessment of the Covid-19 on the economy as well as on the financial stability and the outcome should be presented at the next meeting of Ministerial Committee of the Economic Sectors.

Botswana has also banned entry by foreign nationals of countries at high risk of the coronavirus such as Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and India and cancelled issued visas from those countries.

In a statement, the Office of the President stated that nationals from these countries will not be allowed entry into Botswana and Batswana and residents returning from high-risk countries will be subjected to 14-day mandatory quarantine.

Also suspended with immediate effect is international travel by all government employees, parastatals and state-owned entities and international meetings and conferences by all government, parastatals and state-owned entities have been cancelled with immediate effect.

Public gatherings of more than 100 people have been totally suspended for 30 days. The gatherings include religious activities, sporting events, conferences, weddings, music concerts, parties, night clubs/bars, socialising and gymnasium recreation.

Everywhere, including in banks, restaurants/take-out outlets, supermarkets/shops, pharmacies, post offices, government service departments and funerals, the public has been advised to maintain a 1-2 metres distance between individuals and a maximum of 50 individuals.

“During funerals, services should be brief, lasting not more than two hours. There should be no serving of food to mourners, easy access to hand cleaning with water and soap should be provided while strict hand washing and surface cleaning of all burial equipment is recommended,” said the statement.

Botswana and neighbouring South Africa have closed 12 borders that the two neighbouring countries share. Only five borders between the two Southern African countries have been left open.

South Africa’s High Commissioner to Botswana, Rosemary Mashaba, this week named the border posts that her country shut down which links that country with the rest of the Southern African Community (SADC) member states.

 The measure applies to six countries in the region which are members of the Southern African Customs Union (SACU and SADC. All in all, South Africa has closed 34 border posts that it shares with Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique and Namibia.  The ban came as South Africa battles with cases of coronavirus which continued to soar in that country.  

The decision by South Africa, which is the largest economy in region, to close scores of its border posts which it shares with other members of SADC and SACU has placed member states’ economies at cross roads.

While she did not disclose which points of entry for other countries have not been closed, Mashaba stated that only commercial points of entry into Botswana from South Africa will remain open, namely Groblesburg, Kopfontein, Ramatlabama and Skilpadshek.

The border posts that South Africa shares with Botswana have been closed are Zanzibar, Platjan, Pontdrift, Stockpoort, Swartkopfontein Gate, Bray, Makopong, Makgobistad, Gemsbok, MC Carthy’s Rest, Middleputs and Twee Rivieren.

For Eswatini, the border posts which have been closed are Onverwacht, Bothashoop, Emahlatini, Josefsdal, Nerston, and Waverly.

Mashaba stated that for Lesotho, the border posts which have been closed are Ramatsilitso Gate, Ongeluksnek, Telle Bridge, Peka Bridge, Monantsa Pass, Sepapus Gate, Sani Pass and Boesmansnek.

South Africa also closed borders linking that country with neighbouring Mozambique. They are Kosi Bay, Giriyondo, Pafuri.  for Namibia, the closed border posts include Alexander Bay, Rietfontein, Onseepkans and Sendelingsdrift. Mashaba said South African authorities will strengthen surveillance, screening and testing measures at OR Tambo, Cape Town and King Shaka international airports. She said South Africa has 72 ports of entry in the country which are land, sea and airport.

“South Africa has 53 land ports, 35 have been shut down with effect from Monday, 16 March 2020. Two of the eight sea ports are closed for passengers and crew changes,” she said.

Observers noted that the impact of border closures may be too early to calculate as well as the potential damage to SADC and SACU, but that this will have serious implications on the region.  

They pointed out that there is no way Botswana and the members of SADC and SACU can escape the pinch of coronavirus in South Africa. A number of  South African companies are active in other sectors, including retail trade, insurance and banking in countries in the SADC region.

Zambia also implemented a wide range of measures, including closure of all learning institutions, regulating public gatherings, including reduced worshiping hours for churches.

All learning institutions will remain closed from 20 March, all public transport should allow a limited number of people to assemble.  Funeral gatherings and other public meetings will be monitored by health authorities.

All people suspected to be suffering from flu related cases are expected to be isolated from such gatherings and reported to relevant health officials or set up points for assessment.  Vending of all nature in the central business districts in all parts of the country has been banned.

Public health at individual and national levels are expected to be practiced at all times to avert infection. International travelers from risky countries such as China, the US, and South Africa, among others, are expected to liaise with various Zambian missions in their respective countries to validate their visa entries before seeking to travel to the country.

Health minister Chitalu Chilufya, announcing a wide range of regulations initiated under Statutory Instruments 21/22 of 2020 in Lusaka on Tuesday, said all learning institutions were expected to close down effective 20 March until further notice.

Other measures instituted against the virus include people avoiding handshakes, hugs, exercising social distancing of at least one metre from each other with persons suspected or showing symptoms of Covid-19. Churches and other gatherings at markets and public places are also being discouraged to avert transmission.

 “It is a requirement for all public places, including schools and training institutions, shopping malls, markets, trading places, restaurants, bars, bus stations, places of worship, and other congregate settings to adhere to and practice high levels of hygiene standards, including ensuring the provision of adequate water and sanitation facilities.

“School authorities, leaders of religious institutions, employers and community leaders are required to disseminate information on health practices, including for the prevention of Covid-19, to their constituents,” Chilufya said.

A total 560 local personnel have been trained at posted at various screening and entry points including airports to ensure all international travelers from epicenters,  China, United States, South Africa, among others, are screened upon entry.  

In Mozambique, the government has admitted that the Covid-19 pandemic and its impact on the world economy are forcing amendments to the plan and budget for 2020.

Cabinet met in Maputo on Tuesday to consider the preliminary draft of the 2020 economic and social plan and the general lines to be observed in drawing up the state budget.

These documents are months late. Normally the plan and budget are approved and voted on by the country’s parliament, the Assembly of the Republic, in December of the year prior to their implementation. But no Assembly sitting was held in late 2019 because of the general and provincial elections of 15 October.

Only now is the government preparing this year’s plan and budget, for the consideration of the newly elected Assembly, and the fast-moving international Covid-19 situation is forcing amendments.   

Speaking to reporters after the meeting, government spokesperson, Deputy Justice Minister Filimao Suaze, said he could not provide macro-economic data, because the documents were still receiving contributions, and there was a great deal of uncertainty about the eventual impact of the pandemic on Mozambique.

 No cases of Covid-19 have yet been detected in Mozambique, said Suaze, but there were cases reported in South Africa. This situation, Suaze warned, could justify further government measures, in addition to those announced by President Filipe Nyusi on Saturday.

 These include a ban on gatherings of more than 300 people, the cancellation of state visits abroad, and obligatory quarantine for 14 days for any traveller arriving from countries with significant Covid-19 outbreaks.

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