Article: The Impact of COVID-19 in the SADC Region: Building Resilience for Future Pandemics

December 3, 2020

An article by Philani Mthembu, Executive Director at the Institute for Global Dialogue.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought multiple challenges to the Southern African Development Community (SADC) as a region and to its member states. Some of these challenges include the unavailability of medicines and health equipment, food insecurity, gender-based violence and a negative impact on the economies of member states. Whilst the pandemic has exacerbated existing challenges, the region has continued to defy some of the early forecastings that Africa would be hardest hit by COVID-19, following what happened in developed countries with better-resourced health systems. The region has thus shown a greater degree of resilience, demonstrating that lessons are not only learnt from developed countries.

With some of the region’s most important trade and investment partners in Europe going back into hard lockdowns, it appears that SADC countries will have to rely more on intraregional trade and investment to reboot their economies and prepare for a post-pandemic order. This will be important, given that the growth and development projections of SADC countries in the short to medium term will certainly continue to be under strain. The following analysis gives an overview of the challenges and opportunities facing the region since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. It points out that while the health and economic effects of COVID-19 have taken their toll on the region, it will be important for member states to use the crisis to build an even more resilient regional economy, underpinned by greater efforts towards supporting the creation of regional value chains.

SADC’s health response to COVID-19

Despite having limited resources, the response to COVID-19 from SADC members has drawn on their previous experiences in dealing with pandemics and epidemics. Some countries, such as Lesotho, went into lockdown even before their first cases of coronavirus were detected. This move was borne from the realisation that they could not afford to allow their healthcare systems to be overrun by the virus, leading to fragile health facilities being completely compromised. This urgency in the early stages of the pandemic helped to stem the rapid spread of COVID-19 in the region, which has been very important. However, there has been an outlier in the case of Tanzania, which essentially stopped recording cases towards the end of April, with President John Magafuli declaring the virus officially over and urging people to return to their normal lives. Madagascar also became a centre of attention when the country’s president, Andry Rajoelina, stated it had a cure for COVID-19. Named COVID Organics, it was made by the Malagasy Institute of Applied Research from the Artemisia plant. While it is no longer being called a cure, its properties are still being touted to prevent the development of more severe symptoms, and as a remedy. It has even been exported to other parts of the continent, and has elevated the discussion on the use of traditional plants and medicines.

Early measures in the region largely slowed down the spread of the virus in its initial stages. It is equally important to acknowledge that these proactive measures were taking place within an environment of inequality and poor infrastructure, whilst some countries – such as Malawi and Tanzania – were also in the midst of their election seasons. There have been various efforts to mobilise resources from the private sector and non-governmental organisations (NGOs), whilst coordinating efforts at a continental level through the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) to avoid going at it alone. The enforcement of health protocols and strict lockdowns have, however, also had their fair share of challenges, especially in unequal societies and areas where social distancing practices are difficult. This has led to security forces at times using an excessive amount of force, which has mostly impacted poor communities. The table below gives an overview of the COVID-19 cases in the region, based on data from SADC. It shows that South Africa has been hit the hardest in terms of the number of cases, even though the recovery rate has been high at around 90%. Other countries that have had relatively high numbers of cases include Mozambique, Madagascar, Namibia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Angola. However, it is encouraging that due to the limited numbers compared to other regions of the world, and a low death toll, SADC and its member states are in a position to reopen the regional economy.

Country Confirmed cases New cases New deaths Total deaths Recovered Active Cases per 1 million
Angola 10 558 289 4 279 4 107 6 172 318
Botswana 6 642 0 0 24 4 676 585 2 806
Comoros 517 0 0 7 494 16 591
DRC 11 306 0 0 305 10 585 416 124
Eswatini 5 909 10 0 117 5 557 235 5 076
Lesotho 1 953 6 1 44 975 934 909
Madagascar 16 968 0 0 244 16 301 423 608
Malawi 5 923 7 0 184 5 323 416 307
Mauritius 441 0 0 10 398 33 347
Mozambique 12 777 252 0 91 10 437 2 249 405
Namibia 12 907 49 0 133 11 000 1 774 5 050
Seychelles 153 0 0 0 149 4 1 553
South Africa 723 682 1 912 66 19 230 653 052 51 400 12 152
Tanzania 509 0 0 21 183 305 9
Zambia 16 415 90 1 349 15 600 466 885
Zimbabwe 8 362 13 0 242 7 884 236 560
Source: SADC (2020) ‘SADC region: COVID-19 status update’, Available at: – as at 1 November 2020

Building resilience through regional value chains

According to the economic analysis conducted by SADC, COVID-19 has disrupted global supply chains as well as lowered demand in global markets for a wide range of SADC’s exports. Moreover, SADC is likely to experience delayed or reduced foreign direct investment as partners from other continents redirect capital locally. The study further indicates that, while the impact of COVID-19 on governance, peace and security is yet to be fully explored, member states should prepare adequately for imminent COVID-19 and post-COVID-19 scenarios that may present serious challenges to peace and security, both nationally and regionally. This is pertinent, given the conflict that has continued to escalate in the northern part of Mozambique.

As the dynamics of the pandemic continue to evolve, the management of supply chains has been a particularly important matter for the region and the broader continent – especially given its location within the geopolitical landscape, which places it at the end of the line in procuring important medical supplies, exposing SADC’s weaknesses within global value chains. The opportunity here is for the region to continue to pursue and implement its identified priorities, as set out through its regional indicative strategy.

To ensure that the region builds more resilience, it will have to use its international engagements and partnerships strategically to support the creation and development of regional value chains. Whether through the Belt and Road Initiative, the forthcoming Africa–European Union (EU) Summit, the India–Africa Forum Summit or the Russia–Africa Summit, one area that will consistently have to be emphasised by both individual countries and through a collective diplomatic effort is that international partners must support the region’s efforts to build regional value chains and attract manufacturing.

Due to the importance of the COMESA-EAC-SADC Tripartite Cooperation, SADC, together with its tripartite partners – the Common Market for East and Southern Africa (COMESA) and the East African Community (EAC) – have adopted harmonised Tripartite Guidelines on Trade and Transport Facilitation Guidelines for Safe, Efficient and Cost-effective Movement of Goods and Services during the COVID-19 pandemic. These guidelines have essentially been aimed at containing the spread of COVID-19 while facilitating trade and the movement of goods and services across the tripartite area during the pandemic. This is important to minimise disruptions in the supply chain and to facilitate the movement of goods and services across the COMESA, EAC and SADC regions. However, these steps must go even further to better facilitate the movement of people in a safe and efficient manner, support the tourism sector and deepen regional integration among the people of the region. In addition, this will ensure that the effects of regional integration are felt not only by large companies operating in the region, but by the many small and medium-sized entrepreneurs doing cross-border trade – an area often dominated by women traders.

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