No sooner had word gone out that a new coronavirus variant has been detected in a traveller of South African descent than a torrent of decrees followed from Global Capitals shutting the door on South Africa. Before long, other African countries were falling like dominoes to this seemingly coordinated Global North Health Embargo.
What message was being sent? That each country by unilaterally bolting its gates will be able to hold back the tide of a pandemic, alone? That contributing to our global understanding of the evolution of a world plague, by sharing the fruits of years of genomic capabilities development, should lead to a country being ostracised?
Even when it was discovered that the new omicron variant had been detected in ten other countries and could well have been circulating well before the South African announcement in Europe, the health embargo merely expanded to rope in countries like Nigeria and Egypt. Even after we had learnt that shutting the doors made no sense at this point, the emotive comfort of locking out “the other” proved too tempting to resist.
Yet, to run effective contact tracing in a time of rapid global physical connectivity information and goodwill is required from countries far and near to plot the trajectory of a virus moving at the speed of flight. Detecting a variant in a person who happens to be from or at point A on the globe says nothing about all the other places the variant may have touched before eventually slipping into the cells of the unfortunate carrier. A very different form of global hyper-cooperation is required to match the pace of such a fast spreading virus.
We in Africa have learnt the hard way that we are in an age where the old models of multilateralism have run their full course. Marked by slow bureaucracy and symbolisms of comity rather than pragmatic trust and modern instruments, this old multilateralism has frozen attempts to reform global trade to serve the people rather than corporations.
It has hobbled efforts to turn the energy transition into a moment to balance the obscene imbalances in population and consumption. And it has led to a world where annually we assemble in New York to address injustice and yet refuse to align on how to make quicker progress on a host of issues, from labour rights to agricultural subsidies and healthcare related patents.
When COVID-19 threatened to disrupt Africa’s biggest multilateral endeavour in half a century – the Africa Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) – “radical agility” became our only path forward.
Through a combination of skillful compromises and modern technologies, we pressed on and ensured that the timeline for start of trading would be maintained. It was as clear as noonday to those of us championing African multilateralism that retreating behind the walls of nationalist survival would be continental suicide. It would also be generational suicide because COVID and AfCFTA are both once in a lifetime opportunities.
Africa’s embrace of smart multilateralism is manifest in being the first continent to agree on a common digital platform for biosurveillance and biosecurity. Absolutely convinced that the each-for-herself idea embodied in border closures has serious limits, we set out to work with the private and civil society sectors to create both institutional and technological innovations to keep the borders open but the virus out.
Continental initiatives like AMSP, Trusted Travel, Trusted Vaccines, PanaBIOS and PanaCode were all born in record time, allowing the continent to pool resources to procure medical essentials; and for test results and vaccine records across the continent to be shared so that travellers can be securely screened for COVID-19 at borders across the continent.
Take omicron, for instance, it is still detected in PCR tests. Its effects are likely to be attenuable by vaccines. We can sequence it in hours in many labs across Africa. There is no reason why a traveller from Togo to Namibia should automatically carry omicron along when their test and vaccine records can be digitally shared ahead of time with the destination country authorities and gene sequencing procedures activated based on AI algorithms for risk monitoring. In fact, with the infrastructure African technologists have built under the auspices of the Africa CDC during this pandemic with the support of organisations like the UNDP, AfroChampions, African Society of Laboratory Medicine, Afenet, Econet, Koldchain, PanaBIOS and the African Organisation of Standardisation, this will become a walk in the park.
Pan-African institutions are now working on doing similar innovative things with continental trade by embracing digitisation at all levels. Recently, the AfCFTA Secretaruat launched the AfCFTA Caravan platform that provides an “AfCFTA number” to every small business on the continent and offers a regional digital trading rails to both government and industry. Working together with Afreximbank, the Secretariat is unifying regional payments infrastructure and creating linkages between gender and youth empowerment and industrialisation.
This is smart multilateralism at work. It is the only way forward for a continent like ours that has long been marginalised in the global scheme of things. But the more we look at the state of globalisation in the world today, the more convinced we are that it is the whole world that needs smart multilaterism and not just Africa.
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