ESA COVID-19 situation report Nov-Dec 2020

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Introduction

This report contains a brief overview of the flow of goods for the 24 respective countries that form the East and Southern Africa (ESA) region. The update is the sixth of its kind and covers the period of November to December of 2020. Many countries have maintained various restrictions throughout the region, especially in terms of goods and people’s movement across borders. Nonetheless, a certain level of business liberalization has at least occurred to balance life and livelihood. However, despite the best efforts of governments, the coronavirus pandemic continues to impact business and life at all levels. Consequently, many people and businesses alike are recalibrating their understanding of normalcy at every possible juncture.

As 2020 ended, we could assess the unlikely year that it indeed was. At the beginning of the year, most countries decided to close their borders and ban international flights, enforcing lockdowns across the world in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. There has been a global effort to curb the spread of the virus. As the spread of the virus has started to slow down, countries have gradually reopened their borders, bringing some much-needed relief to strained economies. However, as we near the end of the year, a second wave has hit most Northern Hemisphere countries and some African countries. Our African counterparts include the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria, Mauritania, Ghana, Ivory Coast, and South Africa[1]. Reports have also indicated that a new strain (or mutation) of the virus, originating in South Africa, is causing concern, as this strain appears to be more infectious[2].

Regarding infections, the ESA region currently accounts for approximately 54%[3] of the recorded cases in Africa (up by 1% compared with last month). The share slowly decreases with the second wave of infections. As the second wave of the virus starts sweeping through nations and hitting the African continent, countries must prevent the spread of the virus in a way that does not compromise economic activities.

Before the arrival of the second wave, an effort was made by most ESA countries to reopen their borders. However, as infection rates started increasing during the festive seasons, some countries have opted to close some of their borders to curb the spread. Notably, the border closures are focused on people’s movement and not of cargo, indicating that some lessons have been learned over the year. The economic stimulus has become a necessity. The preservation of citizens’ livelihoods is paramount, especially the most vulnerable Africans, including many people involved in regional cross-border trade.

Therefore, the Regional Private Sector Group (RPSG) continues to encourage trade liberation during this time while still adhering to all the recommended health precautions as set out by the relevant authorities.

Therefore, this paper aims to provide an update on the current situation across the ESA region. It consists of:

  1. Continent summary;
  2. Country summary;
  3. ESA COVID-19 Statistics; and lastly

Continent Summary

Compared to the rest of the world, Africa’s infections were delayed by as much as six months in some cases, with the virus only beginning to spread rapidly across the continent in June/July. By August, however, the spread started to taper down, mostly due to the rapid decline in South Africa cases, which has been the region’s most affected country in terms of infections. With the arrival of the festive season, cases started increasing again, along with the unwanted genetic mutation of a new strain of the virus which renders the virus more transmittable.

Although the pandemic brought various industries to a standstill, it sparked some incredible innovation on the African continent. Many of these innovations were focused on the medical field as well as information and communication technology[4]. The pandemic has also sparked collaboration between the private sector and academia[5].

For customs and trade-related matters throughout the ESA region, COVID-19 effects have accentuated the reliance on road transport, which is the primary means of cross-border business throughout the African continent. Moreover, it is estimated that approximately 80% of intra-African trade takes place by road transportation. Consequently, regional vulnerability and overall supply-chain security exist, with the IRU (World Transport Organization) reporting that the road transport industry is one of the sectors most impacted by COVID-19.

This is caused by transport and movement restrictions put in place by countries to manage the pandemic, resulting (in) disruptions to supply chains and (mobile) networks and the overall economic slowdown.[6]“.

The congestion recently experienced at many regional border posts highlights how vulnerable border posts are to a pandemic. Operating at a reduced capacity, performing screening at border posts, and keeping up with changing regulations has proven to be a challenge for effective border management. It has also highlighted some of the pressure points at border posts and between countries. Furthermore, given the scramble at our regional border posts, reliance had to be placed on alternatives modes of transport (such as air – and ocean freight). Luckily, both alternative modes of transport showed some positive signs of late.

Concerning air freight, Figure 1 below shows that cargo tonne-kilometres (CTKs) – the global standard in measuring air cargo – performed relatively well during both September and October for the region.

Figure 1 Cargo tonne-kilometres (CTKs) growth year-on-year for September and October[7]

Although the African continent has experienced improved conditions, the rest of the world is still struggling to recover. Industry-wide CTKs has contracted by 9.8% and 7.5% for September and October, respectively. For Africa, the return was much better at a year-on-year growth of 12.1% and 2.8%. The air cargo industry’s readiness is essential in the light of the imminent vaccine rollout process that is about to start throughout the continent – with the distribution being mostly be driven by air freight initially.

The reality of reduced activity during the first half of 2020 was similar for ocean freights. Global maritime shipping saw a dramatic slowdown earlier this year primarily because of the COVID-19 pandemic. UNCTAD reports that by mid-June, the average number of container vessels arriving weekly at ports worldwide sunk to 8,722, an 8.5% year-on-year drop[8].

Furthermore, UNCTAD reports that the regional and country trends appear to follow the pandemic’s progress, with port call patterns in South America and Africa reflecting the delayed onset of the COVID-19 outbreak and consequent lockdowns. Luckily, the ocean freight economy has had a relatively strong second half of the year.

The following table is a summary of the global port throughput recently.

Table 1 – Global Port Throughput Index[9]

As the table illustrates, the number of containers has mostly subsided monthly but is generally up yearly. Annual change globally is current at a healthy 4.7%. However, many ports throughout the world still have some restrictions involving crew changes because of the pandemic. These restrictions include isolation protocols. The following image highlights the current situation regarding port operations in Africa.

Figure 2 – Weekly container shipping port calls[10]

The available information on the regions shows that most countries are ‘open for maritime business’, except for Angola, which is the only country that does not allow crew changes.

In summary, the continent’s economic outlook is a lot better than previous reports, although Africa is far from out of the woods just yet. As the virus still linger and the second wave is a reality for some countries, caution should be the order of the day especially when large parts of Africa will not receive vaccines until much later in the year, if not early 2022.

ESA COVID-19 Statistics

The table below summarises the COVID-19 statistics for the ESA region as of 31 December 2020 and indicates the current state of border closures and lockdown statuses for the respective countries. The WCO ESA RPSG once again would like to extend its condolences to all families affected by COVID-19.

Table 2 – COVID-19 spread and border closures in East and Southern Africa – 31 December

Country
Infections
Deaths
Border Closure
Angola
17 371
399
Borders are open to all cargo and limited international travel.
Botswana
14 025
40
Borders are open to all cargo and international travel.
Burundi
809
2
Borders are open to all cargo and international travel.
Comoros
731
7
Borders are open to all cargo and international travel.
Djibouti
5 813
61
Borders are open to all cargo and selected international travel.
Eritrea
1 220
1
Borders are open only to trade.
Eswatini
8 934
176
Borders are open to all cargo and selected international travel.
Ethiopia
123 145
1 912
Borders are open to all cargo and selected international travel.
Kenya
95 992
1 664
Borders are open to all cargo and international travel. Maritime travel is not permitted.
Lesotho
2 577
50
Borders are open to all cargo and limited international travel.
Madagascar
17 714
261
Borders are open to all cargo and limited international travel.
Malawi
6 389
188
Borders are open to trade and international travel; however, land borders are closed to non-essential people’s movement.
Mauritius
524
10
Borders are open to trade, with a phased opening for tourism travel. Travel bans on travellers from the UK and South Africa.
Mozambique
18 310
162
Borders are open to all cargo and international travel.
Namibia
22 851
195
Borders are open to all cargo and international travel.
Rwanda
8 021
75
Borders are open to all cargo and limited international travel.
Seychelles
226
0
Borders are open to all cargo and limited international travel.
Somalia
4 690
127
Borders are open only to trade.
South Africa
1 021 451
27 568
Borders are open to all cargo and limited international travel.
South Sudan
3 491
62
Borders are open to all cargo and international air travel.
Tanzania
509
21
Borders are open to all cargo and international travel.
Uganda
34 281
248
Borders are open to all cargo and selected international travel.
Zambia
19 943
384
Borders are open to all cargo and selected international travel.
Zimbabwe
13 148
354
Borders are open to all cargo and limited international travel.
Source: Worldometers, updated 31/12/2020

The following section summarises some policy actions of ESA governments to counter the COVID–19 effects.

Country Summary

1. Angola

During November Angola and Namibia agreed to open borders to students, allowing learners in Angola to move across the border to attend school in Namibia. Despite the ongoing pandemic, this move at least saw approximately 1 400 learners continue their education [11].  Towards the end of December, the Angolan authorities indicated that the state of calamity would be extended until at least 10 January 2021[12].

Amid the pandemic, Angola has announced plans to extend three of its railroads by over 1 000km as part of its strategy to establish itself as a logistics hub in Africa. Contracts amounting to $335 million have been agreed with several companies with the overarching objective to improve the country’s roads’ condition. In addition to this, TAAG, the national airline, is focusing on developing intra-regional flights. It is encouraging to see that countries are attempting to improve their economic position despite current barriers[13]. In a bid to move away from the overreliance on oil trade for an income, the country – in collaboration with UNCTAD – have started exploring new avenues of income generation, especially in exporting honey produced mostly by small entrepreneurs[14].

2. Botswana

In late December, Botswana’s government imposed additional restrictions following an increase in positive COVID-19 cases. These restrictions include a nationwide curfew from 19h00 to 04h00, followed by a ban on alcohol sale[15]. The country’s borders have been opened to the movement of both people and goods, although strict measures are in place to curb the virus’s spread[16]. The curfew and the stringent standards have added to the unwanted consequence of the bottlenecks and congestion experienced at the Beitbridge border post between South Africa and Zimbabwe, as truckers opt for the Zimbabwean border post rather than complying with Botswana’s measures and restrictions[17].

At a ceremony receiving food donations, President Mokgweetsi Masisi exclaimed his commitment to improving Botswana’s business environment in the wake of a year filled with economic hardship. He noted that the government had formulated a strategy to revive the economy and boost micro, small and medium enterprises that suffered greatly due to the COVID-19 pandemic[18].  Investment, Trade, and Industry minister Peggy Serame indicated that with the AfCFTA coming into play on 1 January 2021, Botswana is exploring industries with the potential to allow them to leverage the advantages offered by this program, in an aim to realize Botswana’s dream of becoming an export-led economy.

3. Burundi

As of 8 December, Burundi’s government decided to maintain all measures and restrictions to curb the virus’s spread. Although international flights have reopened, and the country’s borders are open to both people and goods, some conditions remain to curb the virus’s spread[19]. Although there have been some protests during the final months of 2020, they have been peaceful. Some events have also been hosted to celebrate the UN’s decision to remove Burundi from their political agenda[20].

4. Comoros

Authorities have announced that all restrictions imposed to combat the virus’s spread will remain in place for the remainder of 2020. While international flight and the movement of people across the island’s border has commenced, a curfew along with strict rules of entry remain in place[21]. In early December, the World Bank Board of Directors approved a $10 million development policy financing grant to assist the government’s COVID-19 response program and support reforms to strengthen the economic recovery[22].

5. Djibouti

As of 16 December, Djibouti’s authorities decided to keep current restrictions as they are.  International travel has been resumed, although it remains limited[23]. On 29 September, the China Merchants Group signed a US$ 350 million investment deal with the Great Horn Investment Holding (a state-owned company in Ethiopia). This investment is the first part of a US$ 3 billion project aimed at revamping the Port of Djibouti, which is more than a century old. The first phase of the project is set to begin in October 2021 and includes constructing a four-star hotel, skyscrapers, walking areas and shopping malls. The upgrades and changes are set to be modelled on Shekou’s Chinese port in Shenzen integrated with a free-trade zone and business centre[24].

6. Eritrea

International travel is allowed under strict conditions, while cargo can move across borders but are subject to heavy screening measures. Most businesses have reopened, restaurants, places of worship and bars remain closed[25]. There have been reports of rocket attacks on the capital in mid-November, suspected to be related to the conflict rising in Tigray, Ethiopia. These unfortunate events have put additional strain on the movement of goods, and people across borders as one of the attacks targeted the Asmara International Airport[26].

7. eSwatini

Towards the end of 2020, authorities in eSwatini indicated that minimal restrictions would be maintained. International commercial passenger travel, which resumed in October, will continue with stringent protocols to prevent the virus’s spread. Many of the country’s commercial land border posts have also been reopened[27].

eSwatini, showing African ingenuity, is the first African country to launch a smart device that indicates whether people are breaking social distancing restrictions. The device was designed to ensure that patrons at tourism establishments observe social distancing. The “proudly Swazi” initiative was brought by NG Corp and the Hilton Garden Inn, the first establishment in eSwatini to adapt this technology designed by Aura Aware in the Netherlands. The Minister of Tourism and Environmental Affairs was very proud of the tourism industry, noting that this technology will ensure that people social distance more effectively and accurately. It is encouraging to see that African countries are willing to employ already developed smart devices to improve their economic position while helping curb the virus’s spread[28].

8. Ethiopia

Ethiopian officials are maintaining a portion of restrictions to curb the spread of the virus. The international movement of people across borders are allowed but subject to screenings while services operate at a reduced capacity. Gatherings of people remain limited[29]. Unfortunately, tension continues to rise as civil unrest continues following delays in the country’s general elections[30].

Ending off the year with some positivity, a One-Stop Border Post (OSBP) between Ethiopia and Kenya was opened in December. The OSBP is expected to improve and speed up people and goods’ movement between the two countries while also strengthening ties[31]. The opening of the OSBP also marked the beginning of a 500km stretch of highway that now connects Nairobi and Addis Ababa[32].

9. Kenya

As of 4 November, travel to and from Kenya can operate except for maritime and sea travel which remains prohibited. Kenyan authorities indicated that the nationwide curfew would stay in place until early in January 2021 and other measures to curb the spread of the virus[33]. As the year ended, congestion at land border posts has become somewhat of a concern, as truckers’ queue for 60km at the Busia border post, with the stringent COVID related procedures being cited as one of the leading causes[34].

As the UK’s departure from the EU draws near, Kenya has taken steps to ensure that this will not disrupt trade between Kenya and the UK. Kenya and the UK signed a trade deal to avoid disruptions that were likely considering the high volume of trade between the two regions[35]. There is also scope for other EAC member countries to join this trade deal, although details remain limited.

10. Lesotho

As of 9 December, restrictions have been relaxed, and borders have partially reopened. International flights between Lesotho and South Africa have resumed, and students studying in South Africa can cross the borders to attend school under strict conditions[36]. Despite some easing of restrictions, Lesotho remains on alert, especially given the high number of active cases South Africa, which encircles the mountain country.

11. Madagascar

Although the health state of emergency has ended, some restrictions remain in place, especially on international travel, with most routine flights being suspended until further notice. While schools remain closed, shops, restaurants, places of worship, etc., can operate without significant restrictions, including social distancing and sanitization[37].

Despite the pandemic, looming recession, and closure of borders among other problems, Madagascar’s agricultural sector proved resilient, with crop production levels estimated to be very near the previous year’s average[38].

12. Malawi

Following a surge in infections towards the end of the year, Malawian authorities announced that the country’s land borders would remain closed to people’s movement until at least 6 January. Luckily, the movement of cargo has not been curtailed. International flights are operating, albeit with strict measures in place to curb the spread of the virus[39]. Malawi showed no positive cases for nearly two months before recording a new wave of infections towards the end of 2020[40]. As such, the country remains on red alert.

Like Madagascar’s case, a healthy harvest season and resilient agricultural sector will offset some of the pandemic effects on Malawi’s economy. It is encouraging to see that 89% of Malawi households indicated acceptable food consumption despite the pandemic and hunger worldwide[41].

13. Mauritius

In response to reports of a new strain of the coronavirus identified in South Africa and the United Kingdom, Mauritius has imposed a travel ban on all travellers from the UK and South Africa from mid-December to 10 January. Apart from this, domestic restrictions have been mainly relaxed over the final months of 2020[42]. Ending off the year with some relief, Japan has indicated they are willing to enter discussions on providing Mauritius with a ¥ 30 billion loan following a major oil spill near the island’s coast[43].

14. Mozambique

Starting early November, Mozambique has relaxed travel restrictions, reopening the country’s tourism sector[44]. Unfortunately, militant attacks continued in and around Mozambique’s northern parts, with more than 500 000 people fleeing following their homes’ destruction. Violence has started spilling across the border into Tanzania, prompting the two countries to launch joint military operations[45]. On a more positive note, the UN human rights commissioner (UNHCR) reported that 39% of the US$ 19.2 million needed to sufficiently support refugees from the conflict area[46].

15. Namibia

In preparation of people’s increased movement across the country’s borders during the festive season, the Namibian government imposed stricter measures to prevent a rapid rise in infections, although international travel remained operational[47]. On 23 December authorities indicated that these measures would remain in place[48]. These restrictions are mainly focused on social distancing, public gatherings and operating hours for bars, nightclubs, restaurants and casinos[49]. Due to a lack of demand for goods and services, 2020’s inflation rate was 2.2%, compared to 3.7% in 2019 and 4.3% in 2018[50].

16. Rwanda

Early in November, Rwandan authorities partially reopened the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo located in Goma. This change will allow small-scale traders to resume business on both sides of the border[51]. Rwandan authorities announced, on 9 December, that the restrictions on the movement of people closure of bars, restriction on gatherings of people would remain in place. Land borders stay open to the return of citizens and legal residents and the movement of cargo[52].

Closing off the year on a high note (all things considered), President Paul Kagame noted in his State of the Nation Address that the Rwandan government has made some noteworthy achievements. These achievements included the fact that over 22 000 classrooms were constructed across the country to ensure that social distancing measures can be observed when schools reopen. In addition to this, over 200 000 new households were connected to electricity[53].

17. Seychelles

Authorities in Seychelles announced that the restrictions in place to curb the virus’s spread would be maintained. International travel continues, although travellers from certain countries will be allowed entry into the country[54]. As case numbers slowed down, Seychelles has reopened its tourism sector, with the reduced number of tourists becoming part of the charm, according to some of the journalists visiting the islands towards the end of the year[55].

18. Somalia

In Somalia, authorities announced on 4 and 24 December that the current restrictions would remain in the fight against coronavirus. Although the country’s borders are open to international travel, Somaliland, a region in Somalia, has opted to close their borders completely, apart from the Port of Berbera for essential goods such as food, fuel, and medical supplies[56].

19. South Africa

South Africa maintained lower levels of restrictions; however, as the second wave of the virus hit during the festive season, the South African government imposed new regulations to combat the second wave of the virus. As cases continued towards the end of the year, on 28 December the South African government decided to put the country under an adjusted lockdown level 3. The restrictions included a ban on alcohol and a curfew of 21h00 to 06h00[57].

Unfortunately, as movement between South Africa and Zimbabwe starts to pick up as the year ends, congestion and bottlenecks have become a problem. The border situation is aggravated because trucks divert their routes to avoid Botswana ports of entry, adding pressure to Beitbridge border post[58]. Queues stretched for over 15km on both sides of the border. The poor conditions, lack of ablution, and access to food and medical supplies have regrettably led to a truck driver’s death[59].

20. South Sudan

For the remainder of 2020 authorities in South Sudan decided to maintain current measures to curb the virus’s spread. International and domestic flights may operate under strict conditions. Furthermore, land borders have also been reopened. The ban on the reopening of schools, religious institutions and non-essential businesses remains in place, along with a ban on social gatherings[60].

21. Tanzania

Tanzanian authorities announced that as of 16 December the current measures to curb the virus’s spread would be maintained. International flights and cross-border movement is operational, with minimal restrictions. Domestic restrictions are also minimal, mainly focusing on hygiene measures and social distancing[61]. For the year ending November 2020, Tanzania’s gold exports increased by 35.9%, while cotton, cloves, sisal, cashews, and tobacco also showed an increase in exports[62].

22. Uganda

On 16 December, authorities in Uganda announced that the domestic restrictions would be maintained to curb the virus’s spread. Land and air borders are open to the movement of both people and cargo. Domestic measures include limiting the number of people able to gather in public areas and a national curfew[63]. As the general elections draw near, unrest is growing, with protests and an opposition candidate and his campaign team’s arrest. Some of the demonstrations have, unfortunately, in some cases, turned violent[64].

23. Zambia

In Zambia, some restrictions have been eased towards the end of the year, with international air and land borders open, and travel for tourism is permitted. Most businesses are also allowed to reopen[65]. Although the pandemic has hit the informal sector and cross-border traders very hard, Zambia’s copper exports seem to be looking up. By the end of September, Zambia’s copper outputs were 19.3% higher than the same period for 2019. It is estimated that production will rise by a further 13.6%, cumulating to 1 million metric tons of copper output for 2021. This increased output is attributed to an increase in production is based on an increase in demand, better prices and more small mines being able to enter the market[66].

24. Zimbabwe

Zimbabwean authorities announced that restrictions would remain in place in fighting the spread of coronavirus. Air travel has reopened, and land borders are open to cargo and tourists. The nationwide curfew of 20h00 to 06h00 remains in place[67]. Congestion at the Beitbridge border post is causing some troubles as truckers’ queue for approximately 15km to move their cargo across the border[68].

Conclusion

What has been apparent over the last two months is that most ESA countries have eased lockdown restrictions and reopened international flights. These measures have been taken to save and restore their economies. However, some countries, such as South Africa, have imposed some stricter standards as a second wave of infections hit the continent. In fact, many Northern Hemisphere countries have once again set regulations more stringent as the second wave of the virus is sweeping across nations. In essence, it has become evident that finding the balance between keeping people safe from the virus and keeping them employed and fed is an arduous task.

Despite some positive news regarding reduced infections across the continent, all ESA member countries still have some form of restrictions in place, mostly on the gathering of people and the capacity at which the economy can function. At the end of December, a total of six countries imposed a curfew on its people. Fortunately for some, as the infection rate started to reduce, some countries have opted not to extend their national state of disaster. Concerns for food security and income generation, especially in rural communities, remains. In addition to this, unrest is growing within the region. Many protests are held every week against supposedly unfair elections, gender-based violence, police brutality, murder, corruption, and other matters boiling over. Also, the growing concerns around the Al-Shabaab should not be discounted.

Nonetheless, with the recent positive news regarding the development of a vaccine, the RPSG wonders how long it will take to provide immunity for our region’s people. Africa is typically last in line to receive the medical assistance which it desperately needs. Most of our member countries are part of the COVAX initiative, with most discussions and part of the COVAX Advance Market Commitment (AMC)[69].

The historical constraints of infrastructure and logistics networks will also be tested since it has become evident that the distribution — once it commences — of the vaccine will not be an easy task. The task is further complicated because a freezingly cold supply chain should be maintained, as some leading vaccines need to be shipped at as low as minus 70 degrees.

In economic terms, the updated indicators project that the collective regional economy is expected to contract between -3% and -5%. The outlook will harm trade throughout the region; however, some countries will be worse affected than others. The international perspective is similar, with the global GDP projected to contract by -4.9% for the year[70]. The WTO[71] expects international trade to contract by -18.5% for the year. Yet, the contraction is mainly dependent on the speed of recovery.

Worth reiterating, the path to economic recovery for the region’s supply chain broadly depends on several key factors:

  1. containing the virus’s spread through various measures such as mask-wearing, social distancing, and sanitization practices,
  2. the speed at which the vaccine gets distributed, allowing all citizens to return to normal,
  3. Increased production, output and consumption on national and local levels following rising trends in the global economy,
  4. the increased purchasing power of the ESA Members and their respective trading partners to provide some much-needed economic stimulus,
  5. the efficacy of the support measures taken by the government in each country so far, and
  6. the determination of the regional trading community in successfully returning to full operation once all restrictions are lifted.

Finally, the sentiment on the year remains clear. The extended supply chain and cargo industry are hopeful of a better outlook to 2021. Despite the miserable trading year experienced by many, all stakeholders with their doors still open will count themselves fortunate and eagerly await a turnaround in 2021. With the distribution of vaccines now a reality, the RPSG continues to believe that the regional supply chain and greater trading community remain to be as robust as ever and continue to win the fight against the pandemic.


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