Regional Security in Times of Health Crisis – A Look at the East African Community

The East African Community (EAC) is a regional intergovernmental organization consisting of the Republics of Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, South Sudan and the United Republic of Tanzania with its headquarters located in Arusha, Tanzania. In 2014, the EAC adopted a multidisciplinary ‘One Health’ approach which was a strategy the EAC has used to prevent and control communicable diseases that can cause epidemics and pandemics. On March 25 2020, a Joint Statement by EAC Ministers of Health was released to guarantee a coordinated response to combat Covid-19 within the region. Despite the measures put in place by the EAC to protect the regional security in the region, the solidarity among its Member States was not achieved and it birthed numerous challenges and outcomes. The response of the EAC to the pandemic exposed the weak co-operation and unity among the leaders who are the main drivers of the integration agenda 

By Becky Adiele

LL.B, Graduate Student, Department of Conflict Resolution and International Relations

Kenyatta University, Nairobi, Kenya

 Regional Security in Times of Health Crisis

A Look at the East African Community

 

 

Where public health meets international relations

Since the 1990s, security has been redefined from primarily military emergence to include other serious threats to humans such as environmental problems, infectious diseases and resource scarcity. The United Nations Secretary-General’s High Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change demonstrated a nexus between health and Security in 2004 when defining threat to international security as “any event or process that leads to large-scale death or lessening of life chances and undermines States as the basic unit of the international system”. In 1994, the United Nations Development Report (UNDP) added human security to its definition of security, which was said to be, “…. Safety from such chronic threats as hunger, disease and repression, and the protection from sudden and hurtful disruptions in the patterns of daily lives, whether in homes, jobs or communities”. Looking at the different redefinition of security in international politics, one can construe that global, regional or national health crisis can have negative impacts on international politics and within a particular community, it hence becomes a security issue.  Health crisis is complex health issue that affects humans in one or more geographic areas, from a certain locality or region to encompass the entire planet. Examples of some of the health crisis over the last two decades includes Swine Flu (H1NI); Bisphenol A (BPA); Bird Flu (H5N1); Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS); and most recently, the coronavirus (COVID-19). The impacts of health crisis can range from deteriorating community health, economic loss and loss of life. Over the century, the world as a whole, as well as different parts and regions of the world have experienced health crisis that heavily impacted the way of life within the particular eras in which the health crisis occurred. During a global health crisis, the impacts of such crisis are more complex to manage at the global level. At the national level, a certain country would need support from other states to effectively manage a health crisis. The regional level is hence the middle-ground for the proper containment of global health crisis and its impacts, that calls for maximum cooperation among the states within that particular region, so as to effectively limit the spread of the disease, protect the region and by extension, protect international peace and security.  Regional security is simply the security that is provided by the cooperation of states belongings to a particular region. At the national level, diseases which are likely to be epidemics or pandemics have the potential to cause political unrest and civil disorder, deplete military forces, destabilize nations and contribute to state failure. In the context of international or regional security, it can undermine the wider stability of international society and have strategic impacts on neighboring countries. An enormous disparity between countries in planning and reaction capabilities for containing such epidemics or pandemics can result in the spill-over of health crisis and disrupt regional economies. Resentments build up from such health inequity and perceived injustice have the potential to disrupt international relations and have negative effects on regional stability. Across history, there has been numerous cases of health crisis destabilizing the affairs of nations within the region those crises broke out from. Taking an example from the Southeast Asia, for many years, Indonesia was plagued by forest fires from the island of Kalimantan (Borneo), where land was cleared through unregulated slash and burn techniques, for agricultural purposes. Smokes from these fires spread across and beyond Indonesia and covered major shipping lanes and restricted air travel in the neighboring countries of Malaysia and Singapore. The consequence of such burning activities resulted in one of the world’s worst air pollution cases in which toxic smoke was released thereby affecting the health of people living in Indonesia and its neighboring countries. Additionally, the health implication of the air pollution increased morbidity among residents of Indonesia and massively degraded the air quality in Malaysia and Singapore. Although, there were numerous international pressures and regional complaints, the Indonesian government seemed to be unable or unwilling to address the health security issue, and the fundamental cause of environmental mismanagement. As a result of that, the relations between Indonesia and its neighbors declined.

In Africa, an example can be drawn from the Ebola crisis which plagued the West African region- particularly the Mano river basin countries of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone- within the years 2014-2015; it resulted in more than 28,000 cases and over 11, 000 deaths. Nigeria, Mali and Senegal were also affected by the Ebola crises but they managed to contain the spread. The pandemic had devastating impact on the economic, political and socio-cultural sectors within West Africa due to the slow response by the West African region and the regional institution – ECOWAS- to recognize the Ebola crisis as a serious issue that would jeopardize regional peace and security. They failed to implement strategies and policies at the earliest time possible that would contain the spread and manage the impact of the health crisis within the region.

In recent times, a perfect example of the link between public health and regional security can be seen with spread of the coronavirus, otherwise known as the Covid-19. The virus was first recorded in Wuhan China in 2019, and has since spread to various parts of the world. Measures were enforced by governmental bodies in a bid to curb the spread of the virus and prevent devastating consequences. The measures included lockdown of the economy and borders of countries, quarantine and isolation for citizens. The coronavirus presented the need for a great level of cooperation by the international community at all levels – internationally, regionally and nationally- to reduce the spread of the virus and mitigate its impacts. Overall, regional cooperation was essential to prevent spill-over of the virus and devastation to regional economy. While some regions in the world maximized their regional security to implement policies aimed at crisis management and contingency planning, others did not fare so well. Within the European Union, during the first stages of the Covid-19 pandemic, the virus had spread like wildfire across Italy causing a major fall in the economy and loss of lives. While Italy turned to the European Union for help, the regional integration was very slow in responding to Italy’s plea and support was given to Italy from outside the EU by China, Venezuela, Cuba and Egypt. This in some way undermined the solidarity and commitment to regional security within the European Union during the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Japan-South Korea relations also worsened as a result of the pandemic. Following the announcement that all arrivals from South Korea would need to remain in quarantine for two weeks upon entry to Japan so as to contain the spread of the virus, South Korea responded by cancelling the visa-free entry for Japanese citizens and increasing restrictions on all visitors flying from Japan to South Korea. During the earlier days of the pandemic, leaders of Japan and South Korea spoke virtually with other leaders of the world on Covid-19 containment measures but they failed to speak to themselves, further straining their relationship.

In Africa, the Covid-19 pandemic has also strained bilateral relations between Kenya and Tanzania, and by extension, regional relations among the East African Community also deteriorated.

Case study: Covid-19 and the EAC

The East African Community (EAC) is a regional intergovernmental organization consisting of the Republics of Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, South Sudan and the United Republic of Tanzania with its headquarters located in Arusha, Tanzania. The Treaty for Establishment of the East African Community was signed on 30 November 1999 and came into force on 7 July 2000 after it was ratified by the original three Partner States- Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. Later on, Rwanda and Burundi acceded to the EAC treaty on 18 June 2007 and became full Members of the Community on 1 July 2007. South Sudan signed a treaty of accession to the EAC in April 2016, and became a full Member of the Community by September 2016.  The primary objectives for the establishment of the EAC is to widen and deepen co-operation among its Partner States in, among others, political, economic and social levels for their mutual benefits. The EAC has to an extent, progressed in the achievement of their goals with the establishment of the Customs Union in January 2005 and a common market in July 2010, subsequently a Monetary Union by 2024 and ultimately a Political Federation of the East African States.

When it comes to coordinated regional response towards health crisis, the EAC has had experiences in establishing strategies and plans towards dealing with epidemics, like the Ebola outbreaks in Uganda, and other infectious diseases like Cholera, Marburg and Dengue Fever. In 2014, the EAC adopted a multidisciplinary ‘One Health’ approach which was a strategy the EAC has used to prevent and control communicable diseases that can cause epidemics and pandemics. With the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, it was expected that the EAC will use the earlier strategies and plans to ensure a cooperative and coordinative response among the whole region in the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic. On March 25 2020, a Joint Statement by EAC Ministers of Health was released to guarantee a coordinated response to combat Covid-19 within the region. Despite the measures put in place by the EAC to protect the regional security in the region, the solidarity among its Member States was not achieved and it birthed numerous challenges and outcomes. The response of the EAC to the pandemic exposed the weak co-operation and unity among the leaders who are the main drivers of the integration agenda.

It is important to highlight that before the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, there were already disagreements over governance, borders and conflicting economic interests among EAC member states. For example, Burundi had on several occasions delayed the holding of the Heads of States summit and requested for removal of the speaker of the East African Legislative Assembly. On another hand, there is a dispute by Rwanda and Uganda over the Gatuna border that brought about its closure. Additionally, Kenya’s recent decision to launch negotiations on a free bilateral trade agreement with the United States of America led to the deterioration of its relations with the other member states.

With the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic and during the time when regional cooperation was most crucial to protect regional security against the pandemic, the lack of cooperation and unity among the East African region was demonstrated by the behaviors of the Member States leaders. The Extraordinary Summit of the Heads of States was postponed numerously even though it was an urgent meeting. The summit was finally held virtually on 12 May 2020 after the multiple delays and postponements. However, the presidents of Tanzania and Burundi were absent during the virtual meeting and failed to send their representatives. The lack of coordination was also demonstrated with the Kenya-Tanzania trade row that occurred as a result of the failure of both countries to agree on Covid-19 protocols to adopt in the cross-border movement of people. Kenya’s decision to restrict movement between the Kenya-Tanzania border over coronavirus was met with hostility and retaliation by the Tanzanian government. Tanzania also banned Kenyan airlines from its airspace following Kenya’s decision to exclude Tanzania from the list of countries whose passengers would be permitted to enter Kenya when commercial flights resumed. Tanzania Civil Aviation Authority (TCAA) also nullified the approval which was previously given to Kenyan airlines that operated daily flights to and from Kilimanjaro to Zanzibar. Kenya-Tanzania relations during this period has been on a steady decline and has in some way affected their national and international reputation as well as their position with the East African Integration. This is not the first time that Kenya-Tanzania would have a diplomatic row that could lead to economic, cultural, and now, health consequence among the two states. It would seem as though all it takes is a global health crisis or a little miscommunication to deteriorate the relations among the EAC members.

The current Covid-19 situation and the EAC’s inadequate response to the pandemic is reminiscent of the 1977 collapse when individual differences corroded and overrode the collective good of the community. It is important for the EAC leaders to abandon superficial interests and speak with a consolidated voice in the implementation of their integration agenda and addressing the various challenges faced in the region such as Covid-19. The Community should base their interests and aspirations on what the citizens of the community want because this is what improves its goal of emerging into a people-centred regional bloc. The interests of individual member states should be framed and pursued in ways which contribute to strengthening the unity, solidarity and common good of the community. Lessons can be taken from other regions that effectively combatted health crisis in the past. An example of best practices by a regional bloc to effectively manage the spread and impact of an infectious disease was seen in the case of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). In 2002, after the first case of SARS was reported in Hong Kong, the disease had spread to five other nations within 24 hours, and within 1 month it was reported on six continents. According to the WHO, the disease affected over 8,400 people, killing 10% of those affected. With an unusually quick response, Ministers of Health from ASEAN + 3 (ASEAN plus Japan, China and Korea) held a meeting to formulate a plan to stop the epidemic. The ministers recognized that the SARS epidemic was more than just a health security challenge, but it also threatened regional security more broadly, they implemented a multi-sectoral response strategy, with high-level meetings involving labor, transportation, tourism, information and health. The Health Ministers were able to declare ASEAN as a SARS-free region within 2 months and noted that ASEAN was the first region in the world with a coordinated, region-wide response to SARS. Once SARS was eliminated from the region, travel advisories were lifted and economic recovery began.

The negative impacts of health crisis on human security can be limited through regional recognition of the threat, new cooperative policies on surveillance and public health that emphasize an interagency approach, and new technologies. Although infectious diseases pose as a threat to human health, it may also raise opportunities for sustainable improvements in public health care. Now is a good time for the EAC to learn from past and current mistakes of their response in dealing with health crisis that could negatively affect regional security.