Slow Vaccine Rollout Could Hamper African Travel Recovery

vaccines from India in Angola
Credit: Osvaldo Silva/AFP/Getty Images

IATA and the World Health Organization (WHO) are concerned that Africa could be left behind in the reopening of international air travel, with only 1% of Africans currently immunized against the coronavirus.

“While it’s important to secure borders and keep COVID-19 from spreading, this must be done equitably. African people must not face more restrictions because they are unable to access vaccines,” WHO Regional Director for Africa Matshidiso Moeti said June 24. 

Africa has recorded more than 5.3 million coronavirus cases, which is substantially fewer than Europe and North America. However, the continent is currently going through a third wave. The Delta variant has now been detected in 14 African countries and is particularly prevalent in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Uganda.

“The third wave is picking up speed, spreading faster, hitting harder. We’ve surged past last year’s peak, and, at the current pace, continental cases will surpass the second wave’s peak in just about three weeks. This is incredibly worrying,” Moeti said. “The epidemic is resurging in 12 African countries and we are closely monitoring rising cases in another 14. Health systems are already pushed to the breaking point in a number of African countries.”

While wealthier countries are beginning to donate vaccines to Africa, the continent will need 215 million more doses to fully vaccinate 10% of its population. A further 700 million doses will be needed to hit 30% by the end of 2021.

“If we take an average of wealthier countries, they’ve covered about 60% plus of their populations, whereas in Africa, we’re really hovering around 1%, or so. It really is a huge concern,” Moeti said. “Our position remains that making proof of vaccination as a prerequisite for travel may deepen inequities, particularly while the vaccines continue to be in such short supply.”

In a recent WHO survey, all 45 African countries that responded said their air links remained open. Only Mauritius is requiring proof of vaccination for international visitors. 

Moeti also noted that 16 countries globally are now waiving quarantine for those with a vaccination certificate.

IATA regional VP for Africa and Middle East Kamil Alawadi welcomed this reopening but added that there must be options for unvaccinated travelers.

“We can’t have a situation where only people who have been vaccinated are able to travel internationally,” Alawadi said. “We recognize that, in addition to restrictions being removed from vaccinated customers, we need to see a robust and flexible testing regime in place to replace quarantine requirements, which is essentially what is killing demand and discouraging people from traveling.”

Alawadi said 84% of passengers will not fly if quarantines are in place. Meanwhile, eight African airlines have already filed for bankruptcy, after the continent lost $7.8 billion in revenue in 2020.

“If the situation remains as is this year, we’re looking at similar numbers,” Alawadi said. “Whether the aviation industry can sustain this level of punishment for a second year is the vital question. It’s a worry.”

The African Union (AU) has set up a platform to procure COVID-19 vaccine doses and it is hoped that supply will improve during the late 2021 third quarter and into the fourth quarter, but airlines will also play a critical role in vaccine distribution.

“Africa needs to realize that it needs aviation to deliver these vaccinations,” Alawadi said. “Governments need to engage right now with WHO, IATA and ICAO to make sure that they keep their aviation industry in their respective countries alive, so that they can actually handle the large quantities of vaccinations that will be coming into their countries, most definitely through an airline.”

IATA already has a number of African airlines signed up to its Travel Pass initiative, which is fully compatible with the African Union/CDC Trusted Travel program.

“We’re working heavily with all the airlines and governments to try to get everybody on a single platform, if possible,” Alawadi said. “It’s impossible to have a country develop its own solution and expect another country to adopt the first country’s solution. You need to tie in a common solution that’s accepted by all countries, and all airlines.” 


Victoria Moores

Victoria Moores joined Air Transport World as our London-based European Editor/Bureau Chief on 18 June 2012. Victoria has nearly 20 years’ aviation industry experience, spanning airline ground operations, analytical, journalism and communications roles.