African nations grounded by coronavirus plan to take flight but must weigh pandemic and economic risks

“For passengers entering Rwanda, a second PCR test will be conducted upon arrival, with results delivered within 24 hours during which time they remain in designated hotels at their own cost,” the ministry said.

The landlocked nation is among four African countries – also including Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia – for their travellers to enter the as the EU reopens to flights after months of lockdowns.

The reopening of the skies is not because coronavirus has been contained across Africa because it is far from under control. In fact, the continent has had a surge in cases, with South Africa having the highest number of cases at more than 220,000 and over 3,600 deaths. Egypt follows with more than 78,000 confirmed cases and over 3,500 coronavirus-related deaths.

The two countries account for about 60 per cent of cases on the continent. The total for Africa was almost 527,000 cases and more than 12,000 deaths by Thursday evening.

Rwanda has reported just over 1,100 coronavirus cases and only three Covid-19 related deaths but its neighbours such as Kenya and the Democratic Republic of Congo have recorded many more cases and hundreds of deaths.

Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta says international flights will resume on August 1. Photo: AFP

Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta says international flights will resume on August 1. Photo: AFP

Rwanda joins several African countries – including Kenya, Botswana, Egypt, Seychelles, Senegal – that are reopening their airports to both local and international flights despite a surge in Covid-19 cases.

Most of these countries are heavily dependent on tourism for foreign exchange. So far Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Tanzania and Zambia have resumed commercial flights.

The 15-member Economic Community of West African States is expected to open airspace on July 21.

Most countries are facing the dilemma of whether to open up their airports to international flights that initially may have brought coronavirus into a continent with fragile national health care systems, or hurt their economies by keeping restrictions in place.

In Kenya, this should have been the peak season for tourists flocking to the world’s famous Maasai Mara Game Reserve. But there will be no tourists to marvel at the spectacular movement of a vast number of wildebeests from the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania to Kenya’s Maasai Mara this time round.

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Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta has announced that local flights would resume on July 15, followed by international flights on August 1, to help heal the aviation and hospitality industries grounded by restrictive measures imposed to curb the spread of Covid-19.

“International air travel into and out of the territory of the Republic of Kenya shall resume effective August 1, 2020; in strict conformity with all protocols from the Ministry of Health, local and international civil aviation authorities,” Kenyatta said.

Mauritius and have economies that are heavily reliant on tourism but have suffered since March when they imposed restrictions to curb the spread of coronavirus. They plan to reopen their airspaces in August 1 and September 1 respectively. Other countries that have announced plans to reopen their airspaces include Botswana, Egypt, Senegal, Somalia and Nigeria. South Africa is open for domestic flights.

Tanzania reopened its skies to commercial flights last month amid growing concern that the East African country was hiding the extent of infections. It has not updated case numbers since April after President John Magufuli announced that the country was coronavirus-free.

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The impact of Covid-19 on airlines is likely to be severe, according to the World Health Organisation. African airlines could lose US$6 billion in passenger revenue compared to 2019 and job losses in aviation and related industries could grow to 3.1 million, half the region’s 6.2 million aviation-related employment, according to the International Air Transport Association.

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 decline in domestic capacity, according to analysis by the International Civil Aviation Organisation.

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The WHO warned that as African countries began to reopen borders and air spaces, it was crucial that governments took effective measures to mitigate the risk of a surge in infections.

It said that even with border restrictions, imported cases sometimes brought Covid-19 back into countries which had not reported cases for some time. For example, Seychelles had not had a locally transmitted case since April 6, but in the past 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.”

To resume international air travel, WHO recommends that countries assess the epidemiological situation to determine whether maintaining restrictions outweighs the economic cost of reopening borders if, for instance, there is widespread transmission of the virus.

WHO said it was also crucial to determine whether the health system could cope with a spike in imported cases and whether the surveillance and contact tracing system could reliably detect and monitor cases.

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