WINDHOEK – As COVID-19 continues to sweep across the world with no immediate end in sight, SADC Members of Parliament have been urged to learn from the pandemic and work towards retaining their healthcare professionals, which has become a major challenge in some countries.
Trudi Hartzenberg, the Executive Director of the Trade Law Centre (tralac), made the call recently when she addressed parliamentarians who represent their countries on the Standing Committee on Human Social Development and Special Programmes (HSDSP) of the SADC Parliamentary Forum.
The Committee invited Hartzenberg to throw light on the socio-economic impact of COVID-19 as it prepared to help the region’s parliaments adapt to the pandemic in the context of Sexual Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) and streamline responses to the easing of lockdowns and shutdowns.
she said that the impacts of COVID-19 had been “extensive” across the economies and societies of SADC Member States and had exposed vulnerabilities.
“It (COVID-19) has exposed the vulnerability of our healthcare sectors. In many countries the pressure on hospitals – and access to medical equipment, including ventilators, personal protective equipment – has been severe,” she said.
She continued: “The pandemic has brought into sharp focus existing vulnerabilities of, for example, small scale cross border traders, as border closures cut off their business lifelines. Sectors such as tourism and the broader hospitality industry have been particularly hard hit, with significant business closures and job losses.”
Tuning to the education sector, Hartzenberg noted that the impact on education as school and universities closed, had been grave and had highlighted inequities and inequalities. She predicted that the effects would continue as such into the foreseeable future.
“In this case, the impact of the digital divide is very clear – those with access to technology equipment, connectivity and data have been able to continue with learning, but many have fallen behind. With school closures the impact on households has been very significant – parents have had to hold down jobs and also provide home schooling support,” she noted.
She said COVID-19 responses had demonstrated how the SADC Region is interconnected.
“As Member States closed borders, we saw very starkly how interconnected the region is. The very fact that the virus spreads across borders is another very real reminder that borders cannot prevent the spread of the virus. A border closure by one Member State, especially if it is a large economy, like South Africa, can have an impact not only on direct neighbours, but on value chains and trade corridors across the sub-region.”
She called for regional responses and coordinated action.
“If countries have different lists of essential products, then this can negatively impact trade. Coordinating border management, testing of truck drivers and quarantine requirements can also assist to manage the impact of the pandemic,” she opined.
The global nature of the COVID-19 pandemic requires SADC Member States to plan globally and act locally.
In that regard Hartzenberg said most SADC Member States had acted swiftly to implement restrictions on movement of persons across borders, and also within their borders, sometimes with painful socioeconomic consequences.
“It has not been easy to find a balance between curbing the spread of the virus and limiting damage to the economy. National lockdowns have been implemented. Across the world, we now see more local restrictions being adopted to deal with so-called ‘hotspots.’”
As countries scramble to respond to the pandemic, Hartzenberg’s view is that acting on evidence is the best way to go.
“Ensuring that the basic recommendations by scientists – wearing masks, regular sanitising and social distancing, and working from home if possible – have been important. But we see now as COVID-fatigue sets in, that for example, many people in public places are no longer wearing masks,” she observed.
She stressed that COVID-19 was still a challenge and warned against complacency.
“We are not out of the woods yet. Although the roll-out of the vaccine has started in the United Kingdom, it is clear that it will take some time before we in Africa get access. Until sufficient rollout is implemented in Africa, we remain vulnerable, and we can expect that some restrictions will remain in place, related for example to air travel. It may also become necessary to reintroduce stricter measures in some countries as South Africa has recently done in the Port Elizabeth region.”
She said many factors make African countries vulnerable to crises like COVID-19 and she challenged MPs to support efforts to address them.
“These include fragile healthcare sectors. Many African countries see an exit of healthcare professionals – doctors and nurses – to developed countries, as a result of the challenges and the poor work conditions and pay at home. “
She contended that lack of safety nets made many livelihoods very precarious in times of crisis, with informal cross border trade, with a predominance of women traders, being particularly vulnerable to crises in the face of restrictive measures, such as border closures.
On how SADC MPs could harness the available trade agreements to effectively respond to COVID-19, she said the lawmakers have a very important role to play as they perform a critical oversight function over the Executive branch of government.
“We have seen that trade remains a lifeline during the pandemic to provide access to medical equipment, pharmaceutical products and other essential goods. This means that monitoring how governments respond to and manage trade during the pandemic is a critical responsibility. Are there shortages of drugs or equipment? Can this be addressed by sourcing from new regional or global supplies? These are questions that MPS should be asking during the pandemic,” she suggested.
She said the effective management of the SADC trade regime (Trade Protocol) is essential as many SADC Member States are land-locked and rely on goods being able to efficiently transit through neighbouring countries.
“MPS can monitor the incidence and impact of non-tariff barriers – and raise concerns with the government departments responsible for different border management functions,” she said.
She added: “MPS can also encourage governments to adopt digital trade solutions – e-certificates and e-payments. These reduce friction at the borders and also reduce people contact. The lessons we are learning now and the emergency measures that we are introducing especially as regards digital trade solutions, should become the norm. But that also requires addressing the fundamental requirements of energy security, increasing connectivity and more competitively priced data.”
She said digitalisation could bring significant benefits in government service delivery generally. She, however, noted that education had been adversely affected by the pandemic.
“There will be many learners and students whose studies have bene interrupted. How can we assist them to catch up? How can we make our education systems more robust and implement digital solutions? In trade, digitalisation is an important step to take and as we prepare to start trading under the African Continental Free Trade Area. This should be a priority,” she concluded.
Malawian MP Bertha Ndebele chairs the HSDSP Committee. She said the SADC PF had developed and released guidelines for national parliaments to use in developing their various responses to COVID-19.