Hey there, Justin here. This week, we published episode seven of season three - From Farm to Table. Each week of the season, our edition of The Flip Notes has covered a corresponding topic to the episode just published. But today, in light of renewed travel bans for Southern African countries, I want to write about something else.
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This Friday, I wasted part of my day arguing with people on Twitter - many of whom did not find problematic the recent travel restrictions of Southern African countries imposed by countries in the Global North.
So let me get this straight - South Africa has world-class genomics labs and scientists and as a result, they are the ones to discover these new variants.— Justin Norman (@just_norm) November 26, 2021
And then after they do, everyone calls it the South African variant and bans travel from SA
I was upset because, as a US citizen living in South Africa, with a South African partner, it's once again more difficult and expensive for me to travel home to see my family. But if I was African or an African government - given the implications on the economy, in particular - I would be furious.
I know, I know - it's a pandemic and precautions should be made in light of new variants. But my issue is not with precautionary measures, but with the unequal degree to which these precautionary measures are being applied. South Africa and other African countries are hastily banned, while European countries which also have cases of the Omicron variant remain open for travel.
In its aftermath, many people took to Twitter, arguing that South Africa is being punished for transparency and should therefore not share its findings in the future, knowing that the world's responses will be punitive. Others called it racism or prejudice against African countries. Some blamed the Global North for its lack of support in helping to vaccinate Africa, whereas others questioned why countries like South Africa haven't developed their own vaccine manufacturing capabilities.
These words should be heard far and wide…. pic.twitter.com/YBhtXaFHP0— Adam Habib (@AdHabb) November 27, 2021
While I'm frustrated by them, I don't necessarily blame these countries - it's simple calculus. Why risk further COVID spread when simply closing our borders to these countries doesn't really do us any harm?
The total expenditure of tourism in the UK in 2019 was £28.3 billion (GBP). For South African tourists, it was £221.79 million - just 0.7% of the total.
Belgium does not currently reside on the UK's red list, despite a positive case of Omicron from a traveler unconnected to South Africa. Perhaps it's rational priorities. Belgium is the UK's fourth-largest trading partner, and sixth overall, doing five times more trade with the UK than South Africa.
South Africa's largest trading partners are China (18.2% of trade), Germany (11.1%), and the US (6.14%). Meanwhile, South Africa accounts for 0.63% of China's trade, 0.69% of Germany's trade, and 0.36% of the US's trade.
The problem is the misalignment of incentives, when relationships are this unequal.
The Global North is showing African countries - during a global pandemic, no less - that it doesn't give a shit. And it is, in my option, the greatest argument for more regional cooperation between African countries. Perhaps the only way for African countries to strengthen their standing with the rest of the world is to do it together.
But we know that African countries aren't helping themselves much when it comes to regional cooperation.
Let's take travel, as an example. There is not, first and foremost, visa-free travel for Africa passport holders within the continent. It is a stated objective of the African Union's Agenda 2063, but seems far off in practice.
Second, travel in Africa is exceedingly expensive. A major reason is because of air rights and a lack of cooperation between the countries. From Bloomberg,
Why is it so difficult to fly around Africa? Blame a combination of protectionist legal barriers and regulatory hurdles, mixed with inadequate infrastructure, high taxes, and stubborn nationalism. Airlines trying to launch a new route between African nations need to first secure permission from both countries, which can be a lengthy and expensive prospect that may or may not involve significant bribes. Forty-four African nations signed on to a 1999 agreement promising to promote competitive markets and remove regulatory barriers. But to date, few have actually implemented the plan, known as the Yamoussoukro Decision (named after the Côte d'Ivoire capital in which it was reached).
Or let's take trade. AfCFTA has still not been ratified by 16 countries on the continent, and faces continued challenges in implementation, with Nigeria "yet to unveil guidelines and implementation strategy for the trade deal".
I have been curious about African countries' trade partners.— Justin Norman (@just_norm) November 28, 2021
It's astounding to me the extent to which African countries (including & especially landlocked countries) don't trade with each other.
Just look at this chart of Mali's trade partners! (The yellow is Africa) pic.twitter.com/nvIZdC0ehJ
Or regulation. As we've talked about previously with regards to fintech, the lack of regulatory harmonization across the continent makes it exceedingly difficult to scale innovation across markets in regulated sectors.
Or monetary policy, which makes the act of trade even more difficult. Ghana is surrounded by countries whose currency is the CFA Franc. Yet it is not possible to move the Ghanian Cedi directly into the Franc. As MFS Africa's Dare Okoudjou told us recently,
The truth is that to settle this transaction right now I probably need to go through Dollars because it’s not like I can give the CFA to the Bank of Ghana and they will hold it, or I can give the Ghana Cedis to Bissau and they will hold it... So we are there because we actually don’t trust each other. The states don’t trust each other. They don’t trust the governance of each other. They don’t trust the currency of each other.
Increased cooperation across the continent is a blatant need. And these recent travel bans have made it even more blatant. If not now, when?