Photo: A typical situation in one of East Africa’s capital cities where congested slums are in close proximity to middle-class neighbourhoods, interacting through labour and commerce and subjecting all to the same fate of rapid COVID-19 community transmission. Photo credit: N. J. Adero
Four blocks for reinvigorating regional blocs post COVID-19
The borderless and indiscriminate COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the weak links within federations. Regional blocs rest on quicksand as long as spatial proximity remains the archetype of their closeness as opposed to candour, courtesy, courage, and camaraderie. Familiar examples from the East African Community epitomise this situation as the pandemic viciously magnifies the underlying disharmony in standards and policies.
Four, not three, cornerstones
Good things come in threes (“omne trium perfectum” in Latin)? You must have heard of this saying. This common saying can, however, be challenged. It remains debatable in the face of COVID-19 as four, not three, cornerstones emerge as critical lessons in discussing the unity of nations. Like the number 3, the number 4 is highly significant in its own right as the symbolic connection of the virtues of goodness to a stable foundation of structure and organisation. The number 4 has also been associated with wisdom, honesty, justice, loyalty, trust, passion, perseverance, strength, and creation. The mysteries of the cosmos that have confounded and captivated scientific explorers in equal measure are also four in number: light, gravity, space, and time.
The number 40 is a multiple of 4. Forty (40) represents a key turning point along the historic arc of generational transformation. Evidence of this abounds from ancient biblical times to the recent milestone in US elective politics between Martin Luther King Jnr.’s prophetic speech in 1968 and Barack Obama’s victory in 2008. Houses rest on foundations with four corners as a basic requirement. Call them the four cornerstones.
Testing the foundation of regional blocs — East African example
Whenever geographical proximity is the only display of closeness as opposed to the candour and convergence of progressive ideas with a driving unity of purpose, federations remain built on quicksand. COVID-19 betrays the weak links in such federations. (More on political federations in Africa from this link: https://africanexecutive.com/article/read/10077).
COVID-19 is testing the integrity of regional blocs, variants of political and economic cooperation which have characterised inter-country collaborative arrangements. The pandemic has exposed inward-looking tendencies as political leaders in regional blocs fail to chart a united front in fighting the borderless and highly infectious disease. Curious questions, therefore, arise on why such a common enemy requiring a systemic understanding and approach is instead leading to disunity of purpose. A glance at the East African bloc exposes a landscape of glaring differences in policy responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. There is hardly any convergence in standards and convictions, with Tanzania having a radically different approach from her neighbours. The recent border acrimony between Kenya and Tanzania on the validity of COVID-19 tests in each of the countries illustrates the need for harmonising policies and standards in the cross-border governance of shared challenges and market integration.
The accuracy and protocol of testing and reporting COVID-19 cases reveal another zone of disharmony in standards across East Africa. Rwanda has exhibited a more techno-savvy approach to the pandemic with robots as part of the combat army. This is not surprising for a country which has shown a higher of level receptivity to progressive technologies including using drones for critical deliveries at a time her East African counterparts like Kenya still grow cold feet towards deploying unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) to address environmental, resource management and logistical challenges.
Exploring, understanding and anticipating the random raging fires of borderless diseases and disasters in this age invokes a progressive deployment of space technologies and big data as well as automation, robotics, artificial intelligence, and machine learning. The suitability of post-COVID-19 policies should be measured against how well they integrate emerging technological megatrends to enhance efficiencies and sustainability in the procurement, implementation and monitoring of cross-border services.
Way forward in 4C’s
National governments need to learn fast from the weaknesses COVID-19 has exposed within regional blocs. Going back to the four cornerstones, a careful re-examination reveals the following attributes to be critical to a functional, cohesive and impactful regional bloc. The national leaders in these regional blocs can ignore these cornerstones but at their own peril: candour, courtesy, courage, and camaraderie.
The leaders of individual member states in regional blocs must be candid about their expectations and reservations. It doesn’t help to exchange niceties in public while harbouring ill private feelings.
Courtesy is key to working together as a team, understanding that temporary storms are part of the team dynamics preceding the proper performing stage. In essence, the glory of wisdom is to be forbearing enough to overlook incidental offences — that good-natured tolerance of temporary delays or incompetence.
Courage is a cardinal virtue, celebrated since the ancient foundation of Greek philosophy. Courage frees up a leader to face the reality and take responsibility for acts of omission or commission, however publicly defacing they may seem. Negotiation remains an act of courage, motivated by a prudent consciousness of uncertainty and natural limits.
Good-natured conviviality is the gel of cohesion between dissimilar parties. No two countries are alike, but it is their diversity that yields synergy if there is unity of purpose. Proximity is spatial, proxemics is social, but benevolence is a borderless virtue not limited by distance. Camaraderie fires up a productive reimagination of possibilities for friendly working relationships between nations, be they neighbours or geographically distant.
These thoughts should form the building blocks of the decision map re-routing leaders in regional blocs to selfless and self-driven service with intergenerational responsibility. Eventually, the harmonisation of standards and policies remains key to achieving a common or comparable working template among the member states of regional blocs.
By Nashon Adero
Geospatial Expert and Lecturer, School of Mines and Engineering Taita Taveta University