Despite lower case numbers, hospitalisations and fatality rates – and despite adopting stringent travel protocols – travel from Africa to the rest of the world remains highly restricted. To avoid an economic disaster, the EU, UK and African governments must work together to remove unwarranted restrictions and ensure safe travel links between Europe and Africa.
Today, seven months after global air travel shut down, there is virtually no safe travel corridor between the two continents: Only Tunisia and Rwanda are on the EU’s safe travel list, and Mauritius and Seychelles on the UK’s. Meanwhile, medical-related travel restrictions – and in particular 14-day quarantines, which are major bottleneck to travel – are increasing.
This is having a serious impact on Africa’s aviation and travel and tourism sectors, which alone stand to lose the equivalent of $120 billion in revenues in 2020, according to forecasts by the World Travel and Tourism Council, equivalent to 5 per cent of African GDP in revenues.
Since the economies of African nations are particularly dependent on inter-continental travel – whether for tourism, investment, aid, finance or even education and knowledge exchanges – this risks significantly undermining the continent’s ability to recover and recoup the developmental progress that has been lost this year. And with the prospect of travel restrictions continuing well into 2021, this doesn’t bode well for the coming year.
The critical partners for Africa here are the EU and UK. More than 40 per cent of passenger traffic leaving African airports is bound for Europe – even more than the 27 per cent departing for other African cities. Almost two-thirds of e-commerce goods exported from Africa goes to Europe, and Europeans comprise just over half of all international tourists that enter African countries. And while air cargo volumes between Africa and Asia have increased 5.4 per cent in July this year compared with July 2019, in spite of Covid-19, Africa-Europe air cargo remains down by 31 per cent.
The EU and UK are providing billions of dollars in support to Africa, whether via budget support of its Covid-19 response – directly or through multilateral agencies – or via debt suspension, where there is talk of needing to extend the Debt Service Suspension Initiative through 2021 as countries like Zambia and Angola teeter on the brink of default. Yet support by the global community – and Europe in particular – to fully restart air travel with African nations could be as important as other support provided. African governments know that, irrespective of how Covid-19 plays out in their countries, until they fully reconnect to the global economy, the economic and social damage of this pandemic will continue to escalate.
Tackling this will require swift, co-ordinated action by African governments, the African Union, the EU, and the UK to implement an inter-continental travel framework fit for the new normal of travel, focusing initially on three key areas.
First, we need to rebuild trust by ensuring there is no inter-continental transmission in either direction. This means extending reliable testing for all passengers prior to travel and during travel, online contact-tracing systems, nationwide testing and vaccine registries, a digital framework for checking testing and vaccination statuses along travel routes, and support to the Africa CDC to create air travel system parity across Africa and in sync with European and other key nations.
Second, we need to ensure the safety of travel, which requires developing and standardising inter-continental protocols and safety measures such as wearing masks and face shields, airport sanitation standards, screening measures and protocols for handling suspect cases, crew and staff training, and travel social distancing. Governments need to be supported to ensure these standards are applied consistently.
Third, we need to implement the right enabling policies, such as resuming issuance of short-term travel visas where countries meet safety protocols, providing suitable financial support to airports and the travel sector to cover additional costs, communicating travel policy clearly, and expediting visas, vaccines and testing for staff and crew.
Crucially, unwarranted mobility restrictions must be minimised, particularly 14-day quarantines. Where African and other countries meet safe travel list criteria, they should be added to that list, enabling travel without quarantining where people test negative prior to travel or at airports. (Ghana and Kenya, for example, have comprehensive travel protocols; Ghana is also providing PCR test results for travellers within 30 minutes.) For travellers from these countries, quarantining should be restricted to positive tests at European and African airports.
As cases rise in many northern countries and restrictions increase, it is essential for the global community to partner more closely with African countries and other similar countries that depend on global travel for their economic and social recovery from Covid-19 to fully restore global travel under a new normal. We cannot continue to kick the can further down the road because the economic and social damage is mounting and so is the cost of recovery to the global economy – whether expressed through IMF or World Bank financing, debt relief, direct aid, stalled investment projects or missed business opportunities. As we adapt to this new normal Covid-19 is imposing on us, it’s time to ensure safety and restore travel with African countries.
Our new paper explores the impact of Covid-19-related travel restrictions on the African continent and sets out what such a travel framework could look like.