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Protectionism Is No Cure for Pandemics

Africa has learned the hard way that international cooperation is key to saving lives and extinguishing epidemics. But the mixed global response to the current COVID-19 pandemic, with many countries closing their borders and restricting exports of vital goods, suggests that the world is forgetting this lesson.

NAIROBI – Africa is no stranger to epidemics and public-health crises. Ebola is estimated to have killed more than 11,000 people in West Africa in 2014-16, and more recently claimed over 2,000 lives in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. Because of their fragile health systems, African countries were able to control this deadly disease only with the support of other governments, the World Health Organization, and non-governmental organizations such as Médecins Sans Frontières.

Africa has learned the hard way that international cooperation is key to saving lives and extinguishing epidemics. But the mixed global response to the current COVID-19 pandemic suggests that the world is in danger of forgetting this lesson.

Perhaps understandably, governments have focused on their domestic situation and their citizens’ needs. Many countries reacted to the outbreak by closing their borders and attempting to solve their own health crises first before helping others. But such an approach will have unintended consequences. And too many governments have paid scant attention to how their preventive measures may negatively affect poor and vulnerable countries in particular.

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