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The first time that businessman Soji Adegbite missed his flight, he was heading to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia from Nigeria’s Murtala Muhammed International Airport located in Africa’s largest city of Lagos.

“I got there just five minutes late but that was all it took to miss the flight,” he told Health Policy Watch.

In Nigeria, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, international travellers were expected to be at the airport about three hours before takeoff. For those travelling from Lagos, they also had to add several hours to just get to the airport, in light of the city’s notorious traffic. 

“I would have to set aside three hours for traffic,” he said. “Adding to the airport’s three-hour rule, I would set aside a total of six hours anytime I wanted to travel.” 

Now, the waiting period for international travel may become even longer.  Would-be travellers will have to be at the airport at least five hours before take off, according to a new set of COVID-era flight safety rules being introduced by the Nigerian government as the country gradually begins to reopen air travel. Local flights that used to require arrival one hour before takeoff, will now require passengers to arrive three hours ahead of their flights, according to the new rules. 

The longer period includes time for implementing a range of new COVID-19 safety measures at the airport including social distancing in queues, hand sanitization, baggage decontamination, and scanning of personal items. 

Following WHO Travel Recommendations  In the New Normal – As West African States Reopen
In fact, Nigeria is doing what the doctor, or in this case WHO, has recommended. As African countries begin to reopen borders and air spaces, there is a risk of infection surges, and effective measures to mitigate those risks need to be taken, the Organization has warned.

“Air travel is vital to the economic health of countries,” said Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa, speaking at a virtual press conference this week hosted by the Geneva-based World Economic Forum that focused on safely reopening Africa’s aviation sector.

“But as we take to the skies again, we cannot let our guard down. Our new normal still requires stringent measures to stem the spread of COVID-19.”

In fact, during the early days of the pandemic, WHO’s Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus staunchly argued against any travel restrictions whatsover – a view initially heeded by some senior African health policy leaders. However, as reality overtook principles, African governments swiftly adapted, implementing tough air travel restrictions.

Some 36 countries in WHO’s Africa region, including Nigeria, closed their borders to international travel altogether, while eight more suspended flights from high-burden COVID-19 countries in Europe, the Americas and elsewhere.

WHO has belatedly acknowledged that the travel limitations helped reduce the spread of COVID-19.  It  now warns that the reopening of borders, while welcome, also carries risks that must be managed. For example, Seychelles had not had a locally transmitted case since 6 April 2020, but in the last week it recorded 66 new cases – all crew members of an international fishing vessel. 

To resume international air travel, WHO has recommended that countries assess the epidemiological situation to determine whether maintaining restrictions outweighs the economic costs of reopening borders if, for instance, there is widespread transmission of the virus. It is also crucial to determine “whether the health system can cope with a spike in imported cases and whether the surveillance and contact tracing system can reliably detect and monitor cases,” according to the WHO Africa Office. 

On July 21, the 15 countries of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) are expected to begin reopening their regional airspace – although individual countries such as Nigeria have not yet confirmed when they will actually resume international flights, as such. So far only Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Tanzania and Zambia have resumed commercial flights, according to WHO’s Africa Regional Office.

According to Nigeria’s aviation ministry, local air travel will, however, formally resume on July 8 at the country’s two major airports – Murtala Muhammed, Lagos and the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport in the capital city of Abuja. Flights will resume at three more airports on July 11 while the remaining airports will begin operations on July 15.

In readiness for the resumption of flights, Nigeria is reducing the number of seats at the departure lounge. At the airport in Lagos, seats have been reduced from 500 to 50 – a move that the government said is in line with the new social distancing policy. All passengers are also required to wear face masks before entering the airport terminals while aviation authorities will also provide alcohol-based hand sanitizers.

Speaking at the virtual press conference, Moeti said past outbreaks had already prepared and equipped African countries with disease management at the airports.

“Through preparedness for Ebola, temperature screening at airports is well-established in the region and we know that this has had an important contribution in identifying cases and also in enabling the tracing of their contacts once they left the airport because information was being collected of who was travelling and who was sitting where in a plane,” Moeti said.

Considering that asymptomatic, pre-symptomatic and mild cases of COVID-19 play a significant role in transmission, Moeti said follow-up of passengers for 14 days and strong contact tracing systems are “incredibly important to identify imported cases as travel by air is opening-up”

By practising physical distancing, hand hygiene, and wearing a mask over mouths and noses, Moeti said the risk of transmission of COVID-19 can be reduced – but not to zero as the global health community is constantly learning about the virus and what works in suppressing transmission.

Still, resuming travel will also bring important benefits: “The resumption of commercial flights in Africa will facilitate the delivery of crucial supplies such as testing kits, personal protective equipment and other essential health commodities to areas which need them most,” Dr Moeti said. “It will also ensure that experts, who can support the response can finally get on the ground and work.”

While awaiting the moment he can travel again, Adegbite, noted that efforts geared towards reopening the aviation sector affirmed that the COVID-19 pandemic has “gone full cycle” considering the pandemic berthed in the various African countries largely through air travel.

A local airline staff checks passengers in at the Murtala Muhammed airport in Lagos, Nigeria, ahead of next week’s formal airport reopening.
The aviation sector is one of the worst affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, racking up losses of up to US$ 391 billion with 3 billion fewer passengers flying, according to a recent report published by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) .

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) also estimated that revenues would drop by 50% from 2019 to $419 billion, predicting 2020 will be the industry’s worst financial record, although IATA’s CEO Alexandre de Juniac, adds, “Provided there is not a second and more damaging wave of Covid-19, the worst of the collapse in traffic is likely behind us.”  

IATA in a semi-annual report added that 32 million jobs supported by aviation (including tourism) are also at risk: “Restoring air transport connectivity will be critical in the post-COVID period to support the recovery in economic development,” IATA stated.

Regarding Africa, IATA describes the continent’s aviation sector as particularly hard hit: “The pandemic has added to an already challenging operating environment and as a result airlines in the region are expected to post a $US 2.0 billion net loss in 2020,” the IATA report stated.

According to the ICAO, in the worst-case scenario, international air traffic in Africa could see a 69% long term drop in international traffic capacity, and 59% decline in domestic capacity.

Speaking at Thursday’s press briefing, Dr. Amani Abou-Zeid, Commissioner for Infrastructure and Energy at the African Union Commission (AUC) noted that prior to COVID-19 Africa’s aviation and tourism sectors were looking forward to 2020 to be a year of growth.

“We were expecting to see an increase in cargo and air transport. The blow is really hard – between the job and economic losses and the livelihood of the people,” she said. 

Don’t Sneeze – You Might Be Denied Boarding  

Abou-Zeid predicted that some of Africa’s airlines will not make it post-COVID-19 but indications are emerging that things may not return to normal anytime soon. 

In Nigeria, Aero Contractors is one of the local airlines that is expected to resume flights. While announcing measures being taken by the airline, its CEO, Ado Sanusi is taking a strict line.  He advises intending passengers who have a cold or malaria not to come to the airport at all. Anyone that sneezes on the airplane will be isolated and treated as a potential COVID-19 patient:

“If you have malaria or a common cold, do not come to the airport because there is a high possibility that you are going to be denied boarding. This is the new normal that we are going to see. The main thing for the airlines is to make sure that the aeroplanes are safe and that is what we’re doing and that’s why we still believe that air transportation is the safest way to travel,” Sanusi said.

He added that the airline will no longer provide meals in-flight, considering passengers will have to remove their face masks to eat. 

But when asked if his airline will practice social distancing on its planes by leaving the middle seats empty, Sanusi said not for now. 

“If we have data that shows that if we block the centre seats, it will reduce the rate of transmission then we will do that and increase the flight costs because somebody must pay for the centre seats,” Sanusi said.

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