WHO urges caution as African countries plan to re-start air travel
July 7, 2020
AS African countries prepare to resume commercial flights later this month, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has urged governments to take “effective measures” to reduce the risk of a surge in COVID-19 infections as air borders are re-opened.
In the early days of the pandemic, 36 African countries closed their borders to international travel, eight suspended flights from countries with high COVID-19 transmission and others had partial or no restrictions.
COVID-19 has had a disastrous financial effect on airlines, with African air carriers projected to lose $6 billion in passenger revenue compared in 2020, according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA).
It added that job losses in aviation and related industries could be as high as 3.1 million, which is half of the region’s 6.2 million aviation-related employment.
An analysis by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) showed that in
“the worst-case scenario, international air traffic in Africa could see a 69 per cent drop in international traffic capacity and 59 per cent fall in domestic capacity”.
So far Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Tanzania and Zambia have resumed commercial flights while the 15-member Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) is expected to open its airspace on July 21.
The WHO said that while open borders were vital for the free flow of goods and people, its initial analysis found that lockdowns along with public health measures reduced the spread of COVID-19.
The UN agency said that even with border restrictions, imported cases of COVID-19 were reported in countries that had not reported cases for a while.
For example, Seychelles had not had a locally transmitted case since April 6, but in the last week 66 new cases – all crew members of an international fishing vessel – had 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.”
Dr Moeti added: “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.
“It will also ensure that experts, who can support the response can finally get on the ground and work.”
The WHO has recommended that countries “assess the epidemiological situation to determine whether maintaining restrictions outweighs the economic costs of re-opening borders if, for instance, there is widespread transmission of the virus”.
The agency said it was 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”.
A WHO statement said: “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 statement added.
Meanwhile, the WHO has announced that it was discontinuing the use of hydroxychloroquine to treat COVID-19.
The decision was taken on the recommendation of the Solidarity Trial’s International Steering Committee, which the WHO established to find an effective COVID-19 treatment for patients in hospital.
The WHO said that interim trial results showed that hydroxychloroquine, which US President Donald Trump promoted as a cure for coronavirus, “produce little or no reduction in the mortality of hospitalised COVID-19 patients when compared to standard of care”.
It said the Solidarity trial would end immediately while the results would be peer-reviewed for publication.
But the WHO said the decision applied only to trials on hospital patients and did not affect further evaluation in “non-hospitalized patients or as pre- or post-exposure prophylaxis for COVID-19”.