Africa starts opening airspace even as COVID-19 cases climb

Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner airplane with registration ET-AOO as seen in Brussels National Airport Zavantem in Belgium. Ethiopian Airlines ET / ETH is Ethiopia 's flag carrier and owned by the government. The airline uses as a Hub Addis Ababa Bole International airport ADD HAAB. The airline is a member of Star Alliance. (Photo by Nicolas Economou/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

COVID-19 cases continue to rise in many African countries, however, various governments have announced phased reopening of their countries. This, as Africa has so far recorded more than 463,000 confirmed cases of the coronavirus.

African nations face a difficult choice as infections are rapidly rising: Welcome the international flights that originally brought COVID-19 to the continent, or further hurt their economies and restrict a lifeline for badly needed humanitarian aid.

Most of Africa’s 54 countries closed their airspace to ward off the pandemic. That bought time to prepare, but it also hurt efforts to deliver life-saving medical supplies such as vaccines against other diseases. Shipments of personal protective gear and coronavirus testing materials, both in short supply, have been delayed.

Africa has seen far fewer flights than other regions during the pandemic. Sometimes the entire West and Central African region saw just a single daily departure, according to International Civil Aviation Organization data.

Senegal’s president has said international flights will begin on July 15. The 15-member Economic Community of West African States is expected to reopen its airspace on July 21. Nigeria has said domestic flights resume on July 8 while Kenya and Rwanda plan to restart flights by Aug. 1.

Kenya Airways wants to resume international flights. South Africa and Somalia are open for domestic ones, and Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Tanzania and Zambia now have commercial flights. Tanzania opened its skies weeks ago, hoping for a tourism boost despite widespread concern it’s hiding the extent of infections. It hasn’t updated case numbers since April.

“It’s good to be back!” Africa’s largest carrier, Ethiopian Airlines, declared late last month. After scrambling to revamp its services for cargo and repatriation flights in the past few months, it now wants to play a leading a role in “the new normal.”

The WHO recommends that countries look at whether the need to fight widespread virus transmission outweighs the economic benefits of opening borders. “It is also crucial to determine whether the health system can cope with a spike in imported cases,” it says.

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