Here’s why protectionism is weakening Africa’s – and the world’s – response to COVID-19

Newly arrived street children receive instructions as they settle at the camp, which the Village Pilot NGO has set up to house and confine children in need of help, amid the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Lac Rose, suburbs of Dakar, Senegal April 20, 2020. Picture taken April 20, 2020. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra - RC21DG99MFPT

Africa has learned that international cooperation is key to saving lives and extinguishing epidemics Image: REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra

Amina Mohamed
Former Chairman , World Trade Organization General Council
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  • Kenya politician Amina Mohamed argues that the only way Africa can navigate the coronavirus pandemic successfully is through international cooperation.
  • However, she makes the point that with increased closure of borders, and reduced exports of goods and supplies, Africa is likely to suffer as a result.

Africa is no stranger to epidemics and public-health crises. Ebola is estimated to have killed more than 11,000 people in West Africa in 2014-16, and more recently claimed over 2,000 lives in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. Because of their fragile health systems, African countries were able to control this deadly disease only with the support of other governments, the World Health Organization, and non-governmental organizations such as Médecins Sans Frontières.

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Africa has learned the hard way that international cooperation is key to saving lives and extinguishing epidemics. But the mixed global response to the current COVID-19 pandemic suggests that the world is in danger of forgetting this lesson.

Perhaps understandably, governments have focused on their domestic situation and their citizens’ needs. Many countries reacted to the outbreak by closing their borders and attempting to solve their own health crises first before helping others. But such an approach will have unintended consequences. And too many governments have paid scant attention to how their preventive measures may negatively affect poor and vulnerable countries in particular.

For example, 60 governments have imposed export restrictions on medical equipment such as ventilators and personal protective equipment – more than half since the beginning of March. Some countries are limiting exports of essential drugs for treating COVID-19 symptoms. And a growing number are banning exports of food products, including rice, wheat, and eggs, in order to guarantee their own countries’ food security.

True, the World Trade Organization allows its members to impose trade restrictions such as export bans in certain limited cases. But the proliferation of such measures could negatively affect the food security of countries that depend on international trade for the bulk of their needs – including many of Africa’s least-developed economies.

COVID-19 is not only hitting trade, of course. The accelerating pandemic is also exacting a shocking human and economic toll, first and foremost in terms of lost lives, but also as a result of bankruptcies, job losses, and mental-health problems.

Faced with this, governments must not be frightened into short-term protectionist fixes. And that applies to African countries, too.

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African exports accounted for less than 17% of the continent’s total exports in 2017. Image: UNCTAD

Crucially, policymakers must not lose sight of the opportunities presented by the African Continental Free Trade Area, which is expected to become operational later this year. African governments have rightly invested a lot of hope in the AfCFTA. By removing tariffs and other trade barriers, the agreement can foster significant growth in trade, investment, and employment throughout the continent. Such growth is urgently needed, because intra-African exports accounted for less than 17% of the continent’s total exports in 2017 (the comparable figures for Europe and Asia were 68% and 59%, respectively).

That means African economies’ interconnectedness with the rest of the world is vital to their survival during the pandemic, and to their eventual recovery and growth. Africa therefore should be at the forefront of those calling on G20 members and other governments to abide by the letter and spirit of their WTO commitments and eschew protectionism.

Unnecessary export restrictions on food, medical equipment, and essential drugs can have far-reaching consequences for the multilateral trading system and the global economy. Such measures will not only impede progress in managing the current crisis, but will also compromise African countries’ longer-term efforts to tackle poverty and improve living standards.

Now more than ever, therefore, WTO members should give full effect to the WTO Doha Declaration on the TRIPS Agreement and Public Health. This declaration recognizes the fragility of African countries’ health systems and promotes their access to essential medicines to deal with public-health crises, including HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria, and other epidemics such as COVID-19.

At the same time, African countries, for their part, should remove tariffs and simplify customs clearance procedures for imports of essential drugs and equipment. And when confronting health crises, they must make full use of information and communication technologies wherever possible, facilitate the exchange of African health experts, and involve the private sector in the same manner as during the Ebola epidemic. By working collaboratively with existing African economic communities and political bodies, governments will ameliorate the impact of COVID-19 and future public-health crises.


In a matter of a few weeks, COVID-19 has flattened the world, making everyone vulnerable and fearful, but also reminding us how interdependent we all are. Instead of wasting this crisis, the international community must now seize the opportunity to strengthen global cooperation and facilitate trade. That means rejecting protectionism, which would only prolong the pandemic and deepen the already-severe global recession.

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