The COVID-19 pandemic has affected millions of people worldwide and to try and contain the spread of the virus governments the world over have imposed various measures which have limited movement of people and goods across borders. Some Ports of Entry were closed and only limited types of goods were initially allowed across the few open borders, skeleton staff reported for duty, more controls for COVID-19 protective equipment and medical supplies were introduced, health checks for cross border crews are now mandatory and many other measures which vary from one country to the other., have been adopted. All Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) members also introduced some measures to minimise the spread of the COVID-19 virus. However, the introduction of these measures have had negative effects on trade facilitation in the Region. The Blog discusses the effects of these COVID-19 control measures in the SADC Region.
1.Delays at Border Posts
The various measures being imposed by SADC member countries to try to control the spread of COVID-19 have led to delays in the movement of cargo at Ports of Entry. Even though there are deliberate policies to facilitate the speedy movement of cargo through the Ports, the COVID-19 procedures that have been put in place make this difficulty to achieve. The need for trucks to be disinfected in some instances and the mandatory testing of truck drivers leads to delays in the movement of the most essential medical supplies and relief food. In May 2020 there were reports of long queues of North bound trucks into Zambia at Botswana’s Kazungula Border Post that were caused by the need to have truck drivers and truck crews tested for COVID-19 before crossing the border. Testing of the Drivers and Crew has led to cargo delays at most border posts in Southern Africa notably at Nakonde between Zambia and Tanzania, Chirundu between Zambia and Zimbabwe, Forbes between Zimbabwe and Mozambique, Beitbridge between Zimbabwe and South Africa, Lebombo between South Africa and Mozambique and Kopfontein between South Africa and Botswana.
2.SME’s and Informal Traders shut out
SMEs and informal traders play a very important role in the SADC region; providing income and supporting livelihoods across the region. These traders make use of public passenger transport both road and air to source their raw materials or goods for resale. Many make use of the border posts nearest to their places of business as they serve border communities. In border towns informal cross border traders constitute the bulk of the traffic that passes through the borders and the closing of the borders has caused huge challenges for this group of traders.
They have been affected in the following ways:
o Lack of capital to allow them to place big orders that can sustain their operations for longer periods. Small but frequent orders sustain their operations and smooth flow of goods through the borders is key to them.
Most of them use public passenger transport to go and buy their wares as well as transporting them back to home. With the restrictions on public passenger transport it means many businesses have not survived.
o Informal traders cross borders every day and this trade is estimated to account for about 30 to 40% of intra-SADC trade. The COVID-19 control measures which included closing of some borders completely and offering commercial goods movement services only at some greatly affected trade facilitation within the SADC Region.
o Informal traders and some SME’s have not yet embraced e-commerce which is being advocated for by many governments. Many still interact in person with their suppliers and customers, and their transactions are cash-based. The COVID 19 controls caught this group of traders unaware and they have to now try to adapt to the new normal which has greatly affected trade.
3.Increased Smuggling Activities
The closing of some borders and limitations of trade and domestic sale of goods have caused a huge increase in smuggling activities through undesignated points. Informal traders who survive on trading across the borders are now using undesignated crossing points to earn a living. But this comes with some heavy costs to the region as well as the traders. For example between Zimbabwe and South Africa traders have to cross the crocodile infested Limpopo River endangering their lives, evading all Sanitary and Phytosanitary controls, evading payment of import duties and flooding local markets with smuggled goods. In some instances some people have even gone to the extent of smuggling remains of their loved ones who have died of COVID-19 in South Africa back to Zimbabwe for burial. In July 2020 several reports of Police in South Africa busting cigarette smuggling syndicates and drastic increases in cigarette smuggling cases were also reported during the lockdown period. There were also reports of liquor smuggling from Lesotho into South Africa caused by the COVID-19 induced ban on importation and consumption of alcohol in South Africa. Due to the closure of borders and introduction of quarantine requirements by countries in the SADC region human trafficking through illegal crossing points and by commercial truck drivers has increased. This was also worsened by the ban in cross-border public transport.
4.Prohibition of Importation and Exportation of some products
The introduction of lockdown measures in South Africa and Botswana also saw the introduction of restrictions on the public consumption of Beer and Cigarettes. This has also affected trade in these products as free trade has been affected by reduced consumption levels. Almost all the countries in the SADC region have introduced measures restricting the export of goods like face masks, ventilators, sanitisers and certain COVID-19 related goods. For any export of these goods authority has to be sought from the government and without government approval no export can be made. Although the countries are imposing these control measures to ensure there are no shortages in their countries, there will clearly be serious challenges if all countries adopt such measures. Trade facilitation in times of pandemics like the COVID-19 will ensure that essential goods get to every place they are needed within the shortest possible times. Restrictions on exports also mean that time is spent waiting for approvals from various government bodies. Other countries in the region are very strict on the importation or exportation of non-essential cargo during the COVID-19 period. At other Ports of Entry like Kasumbalesa between Zambia and DRC only limited types of goods are allowed into DRC because of a Presidential Decree restricting movement of non-essential cargo during the lockdown period.
5.Standards and Regulatory Approvals for COVID-19 Goods
Regulatory approvals, if not efficiently managed, can frustrate trade. In trying to protect their citizens many countries impose minimum standards that should be met or complied with for a product to be used or consumed in their countries. SADC countries do not have uniform standards and conformity systems such that importers and exporters have to seek conformity certificates for the different countries they trade with in the Region. During the COVID-19 lockdown period Zimbabwe, for example, introduced conformity requirements for some COVID-19 related goods like masks through Statutory Instrument 124 of 2020 to ensure that they meet the required standard. Instead of having individual countries imposing their certification requirements SADC as a Region can have uniform standards such that trade between them is not hampered by certification requirements.. Where goods are coming from countries outside SADC, member states may help facilitate trade by recognising those standards rather than expecting traders to obtain conformity certificates again.
6.Shortening of working hours
Some countries responded to the COVID-19 challenges by shortening working hours both at the Ports of Entry and inland. Where business hours inland were reduced it also affected inland clearance of goods especially at Container Depots and Customs Offices located inland. For example in Zimbabwe through Statutory Instrument 174 of 2020, working hours were for a period of almost four weeks reduced form the usual 0800hrs to 1700hrs to 0800hrs to 1500hrs. Almost all airports in the Region reduced their working hours or were closed except for essential cargo as specified from country to country and for repatriation of residents back to their home countries. This had a huge effect on trade facilitation as some businesses had to cancel their orders because there were not enough cargo flights into or out of their countries. Some companies failed to fulfil their orders because they could not get essential raw materials in time; thereby affecting the whole value chains of certain products. Reduced working hours at inland stations due to curfews in countries like Zimbabwe (SI 174 of 2020) and Mauritius also affected trade facilitation. For example trucks were not allowed to move between certain times of the night and in some instances even if they were allowed to move most businesses including Fuel Stations were closed, forcing the drivers to wait until they open the next day for them to re-fuel and continue their trips.
7.Skeleton staff at Ports of Entry versus procedures.
As recommended countries in the SADC region reduced the number of staff working at their Ports of entry to reduce chances of transmission of the COVID-19 virus. This reduction in staff required re-engineering of processes in some instances to ensure there are no delays in the movement of cargo. Some countries continued to call for physical examinations when their staff levels did not permit that and as a result there were delays in the movement of cargo across the borders. Risk Management protocols need to be embraced by all countries and coordination by all Government Border Agencies has to be encouraged as bottlenecks are still being experienced at Ports of Entry. Countries like Zimbabwe, Zambia, Botswana and Mozambique still rely on manual processes even though import and export document processing is computerised. Drivers and Clearing Agents still need to submit hard copies of documents to Customs Authorities for stamping, filing, verification among other reasons; which greatly slows down the movement of goods.
The COVID-19 pandemic has seen countries employing different measures to try to contain the spread of the virus. Although the measures are intended to facilitate movement of relief aid and COVID-19 related goods the situations at Ports of Entry as well as in the member countries make trade facilitation suffer. Countries have more recently eased some of the COVID-19 related restrictions to allow movement of more cargo across the borders but controls like reduced working hours both at Ports of entry and inland make it difficult for cargo to reach the intended destinations within the shortest possible times. Transit cargo is caught up in curfews and when the trucks finally get to the Port of exit they have to spend many days in long queues as the drivers and crew have to comply with different COVID-19 testing requirements both on entry into and exit from the various SADC member states. Stringent COVID-19 measures have resulted in some routes being avoided by some transport operators thereby creating congestion in the more accommodating or efficient routes and Ports of Entry.
No clear measures have been put in place for SMES and informal traders to ensure trade by these groups of people continues to flow during the period of the pandemic. No clear and deliberate policies by the various Governments to facilitate trade by SMEs and informal traders across the borders.
Governments across the world have started relaxing some of the COVID-19 controls to re-start their economies, SADC should come up with measures that deal with realities in the Region to ensure that trade is facilitated at all levels in their economies. Given that most of the countries in SADC are landlocked and they rely on sea ports thousands of kilometres away in other countries, the need to balance control and trade facilitation during the period of the pandemic cannot be over emphasised.
By Innocent Muranganwa
Innocent Muranganwa is a holder of an MSc Degree in Fiscal Studies (N.U.S.T, Zimbabwe) and has more than 26 years of experience in Customs and Excise Management. He has been involved in Customs Border Control and Management, Customs Modernisation and Trade Facilitation. His research interests are in Trade Facilitation.