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Pandemic Dashes Hopes for a New Normal in 2021



Justice Malala is an award-winning journalist, newspaper columnist, author, and entrepreneur.

African mobility for the rest of 2021 will be defined by the progress of the continent’s vaccination rollout. After a year of economic devastation wrought by Covid-19, the launch of the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) on 1 January raised hopes of a new era of vibrant human mobility and improved economic performance. But it has not turned out to be the game changer many had expected — yet.

It is a gift from the gods”, gushed the head of South Africa’s Small Business Institute following the launch of the AfCFTA, the world’s largest free trade area measured by the number of countries participating. The agreement’s intention is to ease trade and facilitate faster movement of people and goods across 55 countries (and their 1.3 billion citizens), opening up access to a combined gross domestic product (GDP) valued at USD 3.4 trillion.

Disappointingly, the Covid-19 pandemic has frustrated the hope of a new normal for Africa in 2021 and will most likely define the progress of human mobility and commerce for at least another year. New waves and variants of the disease, challenges in vaccine rollout, and bureaucracy have closed borders across the continent and stalled or halted travel and trade.

GMR - Malala

John Nkengasong, head of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), says African countries will eventually need to vaccinate at least 60% of their populations. As of 15 March, only 23.6 million doses of vaccine — a mere 1.7% of the population — had been distributed on the continent. The CDC target for vaccination in 2021 is 35% of the population.

“A slowdown in supply could prolong the painful journey to end this pandemic for millions of Africans”, says Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, the World Health Organization’s Regional Director for Africa.

The implications for mobility of Africans, trade, and tourism are huge. For example, as of late March, travel website Skyscanner reported that 121 countries have ‘major restrictions’ in place for South African travelers following concerns about the Covid-19 variant first identified in the country. Flights between London and Cape Town, a major tourism and business route, may only resume in June 2021.

Delayed vaccination efforts could have unexpected outcomes

Some countries will not receive widespread vaccination coverage before 2023. Over and above the economic devastation, this may lead to side effects such as “vaccine tourism” — those who can visiting another country or state to get vaccinated if they are not able to be vaccinated at home. For example, Dubai launched an appeal for digital nomads to come and “live and work near the sea” with the added bonus that all residents of the UAE receive a Covid-19 vaccination. Kenya’s Kifili has become an attractive option for nomads — but they must arrive vaccinated.

Swathes of high-income countries are developing “Covid passports” — documentation that proves a traveler has been vaccinated or has recently tested negative for the coronavirus. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) has already developed a smartphone app, Travel Pass, that compiles a traveler’s vaccination status and test results into QR codes.

Given Africa’s slow vaccination rollout, mobility will be significantly restricted and may spawn an illegal darknet market in fake vaccine and negative test documentation such as those that have sprung up in parts of Europe, Russia, and the US.

Economic projections, assuming that vaccines would be ubiquitous, predicted strong rebounds for African economies in 2021. Instead, second and third waves of infections abound. Kenya expected a strong rebound, with an anticipated GDP growth of 6.9% in 2021. Instead, by 25 March national government departments were shutting down as yet another wave of the pandemic hit.


Kende-Robb, C. “6 Reasons Why Africa's New Free Trade Area Is a Global Game Changer.” World Economic Forum. World Economic Forum, February 9, 2021.

Koenig, D. “Will You Need a COVID-19 'Vaccine Passport' to Travel? Here's What They Are and How They Might Work.” USA Today. Gannett Satellite Information Network, March 22, 2021.

Mokwena, T. “African Free Trade Agreement Seen as a 'Gift from the Gods'.” EWN. Eyewitness News, March 22, 2021.

Remote Working Is a Lifeline for Kenya's Beach Resorts.” The Economist. The Economist Newspaper Limited, March 13, 2021.

Tidy, J. “Covid-19: Vaccines and Vaccine Passports Being Sold on Darknet.” BBC News. BBC, March 23, 2021.

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