As African countries begin to reopen borders and air spaces, it is crucial that governments take effective measures to mitigate the risk of a surge in infections due to the resumption of commercial flights and airport operations.
Many African governments acted swiftly, implementing confinement and travel restrictions in the early days of the pandemic. In the World Health Organization (WHO) African Region, 36 countries closed their borders to international travel, eight suspended flights from countries with high COVID-19 transmission and others had partial or no restrictions. So far Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Tanzania and Zambia have resumed commercial flights. The 15-member Economic Community of West African States is expected to open their airspace on 21 July.
While open borders are vital for the free flow of goods and people, initial analysis by WHO found that lockdowns along with public health measures reduced the spread of COVID-19. Even with border restrictions, imported cases have sometimes brought back COVID-19 to countries which had not reported cases for a length of time. For example, Seychelles had not had a locally transmitted case since 6 April 2020, but in the last week 66 new cases – all crew members of an international fishing vessel – have been recorded.
“Air travel is vital to the economic health of countries,” said Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa. “But as we take to the skies again, we cannot let our guard down. Our new normal still requires stringent measures to stem the spread of COVID-19.”
To resume international air travel, WHO recommends that countries assess the epidemiological situation to determine whether maintaining restrictions outweighs the economic costs of reopening borders if, for instance, there is widespread transmission of the virus. It is also crucial to determine whether the health system can cope with a spike in imported cases and whether the surveillance and contact tracing system can reliably detect and monitor cases.
It is important that countries have systems in place at points of entry including airports. Comprehensive entry and exit screening should be considered based on risk assessment and cost-benefit analysis, and as part of the overall national response strategy. Such screening may target, as a priority, direct flights from areas with community transmission. In addition, observance of preventive measures such as personal hygiene, cough etiquette, physical distancing remains crucial. Passengers should be registered and followed up, and if they develop symptoms be advised to inform health authorities.
“The resumption of commercial flights in Africa will facilitate the delivery of crucial supplies such as testing kits, personal protective equipment and other essential health commodities to areas which need them most,” Dr Moeti said. “It will also ensure that experts, who can support the response can finally get on the ground and work.”
The impact of COVID-19 on airlines is likely to be severe. African airlines could lose US$ 6 billion of passenger revenue compared to 2019 and job losses in aviation and related industries could grow to 3.1 million, half of the region’s 6.2 million aviation-related employment, according to the International Air Transport Association.
In the worst-case scenario, international air traffic in Africa could see a 69% drop in international traffic capacity and 59% decline in domestic capacity, according to an analysis by the International Civil Aviation Organization.
Together with the World Economic Forum, WHO held a virtual press conference today with Dr Moeti, Dr Amani Abou-Zeid, Commissioner for Infrastructure and Energy at the African Union Commission and Prosper Zo’o Minto’o, Regional Director, Western and Central African Office, International Civil Aviation Organization