Cooperation and coordination between governments are vital in combating the spread of an epidemic and in ensuring that its impact on the regional economy and citizen livelihoods are mitigated. Lucky, then, that the Southern African region has an organisation tasked to do just that – in theory.
In April 2020, the Southern African Development Community (SADC) turned 40. Its celebrations were eclipsed by the Covid-19 crisis sweeping the world. The events could have been an occasion to highlight the organisation’s importance, but instead they have simply raised questions about whether the ambitions of the group have been confined to the free trade area (FTA) and threatening Lesotho with a multinational peacekeeping force should it fall once again into instability.
One may argue that criticism of SADC’s lack of coordination is unfair as the organisation is not mandated to carry out such a function. However, the 1999 Health Protocol signed by the leaders of its 16 member countries explicitly states one of its objectives is “to co-ordinate regional efforts on epidemic preparedness, mapping, prevention, control and where possible the eradication of communicable and non-communicable diseases.”
While it is true that 13 of the 16 countries have implemented lockdowns (Malawi, Tanzania and Zambia being the outliers), there is no indication that these were put in place as part of a coordinated, regional effort. Indeed, SADC is not mentioned when such measures are taken. The staggered implementation of the lockdowns indicates they were decided individually by members. Meanwhile, the countries that have bucked the trend have not had to answer to the regional body as to why they did so, and no statements have been made by SADC to steer policy in a particular direction.
In its second Regional Response Bulletin on the Covid-19 pandemic, SADC outlines six “Regional Coordination Response Actions”. These are:
- Movement of essential goods: Guidelines on Harmonisation and Facilitation of Movement of Essential Goods and Services across borders during the Covid-19 pandemic have been issued and members are aligning them with national laws.
- Regional trade and transport: The Regional Transport Transit Facilitation Cell (RTTFC) has called on the World Food Programme (WFP) to help provide humanitarian assistance and has helped address trade and transport facilitation challenges (its usual function presumably).
- Education during lockdown: Organised a vague action plan with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) in order to work together to help make distance learning possible during lockdowns and to create awareness of health and hygiene. Concrete steps are not mentioned.
- Gather international support: The group said it would continue to engage with the African Development Bank (AfDB) and the German government (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit, GIZ) to acquire essential medicines, medical supplies and medical equipment – especially testing kits, personal protective equipment and ventilators.
- Gather information on pharmaceutical manufacturing: The organisation is collecting information from members in order to develop a regional database of pharmaceutical manufacturers. This is perhaps a function one would have expected the Health Sector Coordinating Unit to have carried out years ago as part of its epidemic preparedness mandate.
- Gather information on needs: The organisation is compiling a consolidated list of member needs with regard to essential medicines, medical supplies and equipment.
While not nothing, the list of actions falls short of what would be expected from a coordinating body with a mandate specifically related to organising the response to epidemics. There is no mention of a recommended policy (herd immunity or indefinite social distancing?) with regard to slowing the spread of the disease or on the eventual lifting of lockdowns. South Africa, Mauritius and other countries are now considering easing their emergency measures while the likes of Malawi have yet to implement any – how will such differences in timing and approach affect travel or trade restrictions? Would citizens from these countries with relatively high infection rates be allowed to travel to countries that do not yet have lockdowns in place?
Indeed, countries are beginning to appreciate that coming out of lockdowns may be considerably trickier than going into them. What industries need to be restarted first? Can you reopen your borders unilaterally? These are questions of coordination, and SADC’s report does not mention any plans for leading this process.
Criticism of the organisation’s performance is perhaps too easy. If it does not have the capacity to carry out its stated role, it is only because member states have not ensured it. Where it does appear to have capacity – in the realms of coordinating trade and transport and in lobbying international organisations and donors – it appears to be doing what it can.
The region, and the world at large, are awakening to the reality that combating a pandemic like Covid-19 requires coordination and cooperation and the current organisations in place have fallen short of ensuring this. Viruses do not respect borders, and countering their spread requires viewing the issue in just such a borderless sense.
The European Union (EU) – by far the regional body furthest along the path towards supranational governance – was seriously let down one of its founding members, Italy, during this crisis with its lack of assistance; raising questions about what effect the crisis might have on the organisation’s future. The World Health Organisation (WHO), too, has also come in for criticism – though some, like that from US President Donald Trump, has arguably been unfair. Criticism of SADC during this pandemic should thus be seen in the context of the lacklustre performance of regional organisations more broadly.
We can perhaps expect states to take the threat of pandemics more seriously in future and give coordinating bodies the resources and powers needed to effectively steer responses. However, it should be appreciated that the 1999 Health Protocol signed by SADC came during the height of the HIV/Aids pandemic. Political will fades and priorities shift soon after crises disappear or become quotidian.