What is East Africa doing to get travel back on track?

Countries in the region are co-ordinating risk assessment and travel in an unprecedented way

FILE - in this Wednesday, June 3, 2020 file photo, children run down a street past an informational mural warning people about the dangers of the new coronavirus, in the Kibera slum, or informal settlement, of Nairobi, Kenya. (AP Photo/Brian Inganga, File)
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As countries around the world work to overcome the Covid-19 pandemic and restart their economies, they all face the challenge of reopening borders while protecting their populations’ health.

Each border crossing point must ensure travellers do not import a new deadly wave of the virus. In East Africa, we saw the logistical challenge of this with kilometres of lorry drivers backed up along our borders as they waited for hours to get test results.
The East African Community – an intergovernmental organisation comprising six eastern African nations – responded promptly by equipping and certifying more laboratories to test travellers and share results electronically with border control and law enforcement.

The Regional Electronic Cargo and Driver Tracking System worked off an app and used GPS for real time monitoring of driver compliance to health measures. Supported by TradeMark East Africa, this was the fastest co-ordinated change of border protocols accomplished in the history of East Africa.

Our next challenge is to safely reopen our land, sea and air border crossings. It is widely expected that all countries will initially require travellers to have a recent negative Covid-19 test in order to ensure that they do not spread the infection during the journey and at their destination.

To achieve this, we need people to show Covid-19 test results from a certified lab in a way that cannot be falsified or counterfeited. Even as they share this highly personal health information, we want to preserve their personal privacy.

To address the challenge, the East African Community is working with The Commons Project, a Swiss-based non-profit public trust that builds digital services for public good. Using an app called CommonPass, travellers will share their recent test in a way that ensures authenticity of results and the privacy of the traveller. CommonPass is being implemented through a collaborative design sprint that starts on July 9 with national, regional and global stakeholders that include the design firm IDEO and The World Economic Forum, with the support of the Rockefeller Foundation.

A crucial part of the system is fact that no personal health information ever leaves the traveller's phone without their consent

Travellers begin their journey using CommonPass by taking an accredited lab test that can be shared electronically to their mobile phone. That certificate is a digital analogue to the widely used “yellow card”, an international certificate of vaccination. This digital health passport will start with lab results, but eventually include vaccination records when a Covid-19 vaccine becomes available. By using CommonPass, test results and authenticity can be assessed by authorised healthcare, airlines or immigration authorities.

A crucial part of the system is the fact that – apart from the specific test result selected by the user – no personal health information ever leaves the traveller’s phone without their consent.

The CommonPass initiative builds on work already done by the East African Community, including the CommonHealth Map, which tracks Covid-19 cases across the region, and the COVIDcheck risk assessment tool, which is available in Swahili, Kinyarwanda, English, French and many other languages.

Moving forward, our major priority is to ensure that Covid-19 does not disrupt implementation of the African Continental Free Trade Area, which will improve so many lives by removing trade obstacles between 28 African countries. This is a major achievement, which must be protected and progressed further.

We may not have a vaccine yet, but the East African Community has shown how digital services for public good can combat the pandemic and preserve privacy. Opening borders is our next challenge, and an opportunity to apply this model.

Daniel Murenzi is the head of information technology at the East African Community