Will a strong Africa CDC trigger travel restrictions?

David Adetula

What you need to know:

...restrictions exist because many wrongly perceive them as effective measures to deal with public health emergencies

On August 11, the acting director of the Africa Centre for Disease Control (Africa CDC), Ahmed Ogwell, announced that the agency was in discussions with two partners about making monkeypox vaccines available in Africa.

The announcement came on the heels of the decision by the African Union (AU) Executive Council to amend the Africa CDC’s statute. The amendment empowers the Africa CDC to operate as an autonomous public health agency.

In response to this development, the World Health Organisation (WHO) voiced opposition. The essence of the amendment of the Africa CDC will be defeated if the opposition by WHO leads the continental agency to jettison some of the abilities that come with its autonomy. For Africa’s benefit, the reform of the Africa CDC must go on as planned while engagement with the WHO on the gray areas continues.

 Additionally, WHO argued that the Africa CDC would be encroaching on the global agency’s jurisdiction. It states that if the Africa CDC can declare a public health emergency, such power could “trigger more travel and trade restrictions [from other countries] and isolate the continent”.

 The WHO cited instances of travel restrictions placed on southern African countries by countries mostly in Europe and America when the Omicron variant emerged. This misleading statement could preempt non-African countries towards biases that unnecessarily question the ability of the Africa CDC to act in its newly expanded capacity. Such a weighty statement does not necessarily reflect the good ambitions of the Africa CDC.

 Countries often impose travel restrictions during public health emergencies to stop the cross-border spread of infections. However, studies show that such measures, when unilaterally put in place, without effective domestic measures, often fail to achieve their purpose. A travel restriction impacts negatively on the economy as it limits trade.

 According to the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTCC), global spending on travel and tourism nearly halved in 2020. Additionally, around 62 million jobs were also lost in travel, tourism, and associated industries due to strict travel restrictions.   The new amendment gives the Africa CDC the advantage of being closer to African governments than the WHO in decision-making on public health emergencies. The advantage of this closeness is that it will ensure decision-making stems from increased collaboration between representatives of AU member states and the Africa CDC. The method of implementing such a declaration can also be carefully reached so that intracontinental travels and trades are not affected.

 The Africa CDC has stated that it does not intend to take decisions unilaterally without consulting the WHO. A multilateral approach that engages stakeholders ensures that travel and trade restrictions by countries outside the continent are mitigated. 

 When the Omicron variant of Covid-19 emerged, it was clear that Africa needed more vaccines and not travel restrictions. Unfortunately, it took a while before the continent could make a united case against such a rigid measure.

 Moving forward, African countries need to be prepared to respond adequately to the next pandemic. A re-positioned Africa CDC could start developing a public health emergency response system for the continent, including building capacities to produce vaccines locally. This autonomy will relieve the WHO of burdens that come with attending to every country at the same time. Such progress guarantees that only measures that apply to the peculiarity of the continent come into effect during any pandemic.

 The concerns of the WHO are not insolvable. The huge potential of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) shows how much success can be achieved when African countries build a united front to solve their problems.

 Existing concerns are mild and they can be resolved through sustained dialogue. The WHO has to keep working closely with the Africa CDC while it leaves the continental agency to make its decisions.  Travel and trade restrictions exist because many countries wrongly perceive them as effective measures to deal with public health emergencies. The creation of a stronger Africa CDC that can protect the interest of its member states would be better positioned to prevent travel and trade restrictions in the emergence of a pandemic than a GSI.

David Adetula, writing fellow at African Liberty.  [email protected]