Three years ago, nearly every country in Africa agreed to be part of a continental free trade area intended to lower tariffs and boost economies. But the agreement has yet to be fully implemented because of restrictions stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The World Bank says the Africa Continental Free Trade Area Agreement set up the largest free trade bloc in the world, and has the potential to pull 30 million people out of poverty.

The agreement reduces tariffs between African countries and, the World Bank says, could boost Africa’s combined GDP by $450 billion by 2035.

But those prospects may not materialize because many countries in Africa have yet to fully open their economies due to health restrictions to combat the spread of the coronavirus.

Kennedy Adede, founder of Shining Hope for Communities (SHOFCO), which works in poor neighborhoods in Nairobi, says the lack of employment opportunities has to be addressed.

"People are going through a lot of hardship, people are more scared of dying from hunger than dying from this virus and that has become a challenge. How do we solve that? That’s why this is not just about the vaccine alone," Adede said. "It needs a multi-angle [approach] to fight this economically to ensure that we drive more jobs. If you think in Africa right now, the population of young people is scary and if they don’t trust what we are saying, then we are gone.”

Speaking at a recent webinar, John Nkengasong, director of the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said that if Africa was better prepared to combat the pandemic, the free trade area would be flourishing.

“It’s really for us in public health to continue to make sure that we place the public health agenda at the center of political dialogues, at the center of the economic dialogue. Look at the damage the pandemic has caused to our continental aspiration for the continental free trade area. I will argue that without this pandemic, that whole aspiration, the developmental agenda would have been at a very different level today in the continent,” Nkengasong said.

Nearly 18 months into the pandemic, just 2.5% of Africa’s 1.3 billion people are vaccinated. The African CDC wants to vaccinate 60% of the population by the end of 2022.

The agency says Africa had received 123.5 million vaccine doses by mid-August. The continent secured the vaccine through bilateral agreements and COVAX, a global initiative that seeks to provide vaccine to developing countries.

African countries will also share some 400 million Johnson & Johnson vaccine doses, which are being manufactured in South Africa.

But Nkengasong says Africa is still not receiving enough vaccine.

“When COVID just started, it was very difficult for anyone in Africa to know somebody who has died of COVID but now is a common thing we know, and that is pushing that you see lines of people out there. So the first doses of vaccines that we supplied in the continent, some of those ended up in wastage because we were dealing with misinformation. The challenge we have now is that people are saying here we are with open arms, ready to get the jab, but the jabs are not there,” Nkengasong said.

Africa’s economy is still expected to grow 3.4% this year, but that’s of little consequence to the tens of millions who are struggling to find a steady income as the virus takes away jobs and lives.

Source: Voice of America