Covid-19 in Africa: A Look at the Human Rights Implications in Ongoing State Led Responses by Kasiva Mulli, Researcher
It was not until February of 2020 that Africa reported its first case of COVID-19, busting an infamous myth that Africans were not susceptible to the virus. The virus has since spread fast as carriers interacted with other people, some defying mandatory quarantine regulations. This, as experts had observed was an unwelcomed yet expected development, which is estimated to have a devastating impact on the continent.
As Dr John Nkengasong, Chairperson of the African Centre for Disease Control and Prevention observed, the pandemic has to be seen as an economic disaster, a security disaster and a humanitarian disaster. The continent not only has limited resources to deal with a grave pandemic such as COVID-19, but the existing public health system is ill-equipped and unreliable while access to private health care is expensive and unreachable to many.
In addition, the continent still struggles with an existing disease burden of HIV/AIDs, Tuberculosis, Malaria, and Cancer among others. While the virus is said to affect all regardless of class, wealth, race or gender, its effect on people with limited means and no social safety nets could be devastating.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), as of 29th March 2020, reported cases across Africa had arisen to 3005 with 51 recorded deaths across 39 countries. Various countries have adopted diverse responses of combating the virus as they fight to stop the spread. Common measures include increased calls to observe hygiene and social distancing.
Countries like Kenya have instituted a curfew, from 7 pm to 5 am enforced by the National Police Service, encouraged people to work from home, apart from those offering essential services, closed all academic institutions and introduced a ban on all social gatherings including religious gatherings, weddings and funerals. Further, the National Council of Administration of Justice decided to release petty offenders from prisons and reduce bail terms for those in remand not accused of capital offences.
This is a bid to reduce congestion in various prisons. Kenya has also banned visits to prisons as well as movement of prisoners from prison to the court for their case hearings. While this is seen as a necessary measure, it is not clear if prisons are putting in place other measures essential for protection of prisoners.
An example would be ensuring quarantine for new admissions, testing of any prisoner showing symptoms and protective gear for officers who interact with both prisoners and those outside of prisons thus becoming possible carriers of COVID-19.
Ethiopia has also taken some measures which include postponing the upcoming general election, closing all academic institutions, banning public gatherings, encouraging social distancing for religious gatherings, encouraging non-essential workers to work from home and releasing prisoners with a remainder of one year and below of their sentences. Some federal regions in the country have also taken unilateral measures with Tigrai declaring a state of emergency.
Other countries such as South Africa, which has the highest reported cases, have taken more drastic measures, instituting a 21-day lockdown enforced by the military. Zimbabwe and Namibia have followed with a similar number of days while Rwanda, Uganda and certain parts of Nigeria (Lagos and Abuja) have instituted a 14-day lockdown.
While some of these measures are commendable as governments struggle to contain the spread of the virus, it is important to assess the effect they have on individual human rights. While freedom(s) of movement, assembly and association could be limited under the prevailing circumstances, they do have a ripple effect on other rights which could have destructive impact for a sizable number of the population.
Social Safety Nets
Most African countries lack social safety nets for their citizens. A sizable number of their population work in the informal economy or depend on daily wages and as such lack savings or any form of social insurance. Alex Bradbent and Benjamin T.H Smart observe that the WHO website contains no technical guidance on how African governments should approach their considerably different contexts. They warn that failure to recognize that one size does not fit all could have lethal consequences. The call by WHO which is replicated by many governments to keep a social distance and stay at home may not apply to the above mentioned population especially those living in urban centres.
Many African urban centres including in Kenya and South Africa, this sizable population live by hand to mouth and depend on daily wages for sustenance. Without work, they cannot feed themselves and their families as well as access other necessities. They also live in crowded informal settlements where social distancing is next to impossible. Maintaining hygiene is also an uphill task as water is either scarce or its availability irregular.
Most school-going children in these settings rely on their school to at least provide a meal a day. With schools closed, that may no longer possible. This may be worse for women and persons with disabilities who due to various compounding factors such as limited access to employment, amenities and vulnerability to violence will be affected disproportionately. Concerns have also been raised about use of force by police and the army as they enforce curfew and lockdowns in various countries.
Some countries such as South Africa and Rwanda have announced social protection measures for their most vulnerable populations. These protections include provision of social grants, food, access to shelters for the homeless, free electricity and water among others. Kenyan authorities have stated that they are avoiding implementation of a total lockdown as a way of preserving the economy and as such cushion those who rely on daily wages.
However, the pandemic has reduced work opportunities as small businesses close down, and people send off their casual labourers’ home. While countries continue to adopt macro-economic measures, there is limited information if there are plans to consider providing social protective measures for their vulnerable population. It is however, good to note the situation at state level keeps on changing rapidly.
These may be frightening times for both citizens and governments in Africa, but a lack of a human rights-based approach to responding to the COVID-19 pandemic that takes into consideration the circumstances of vulnerable populations will only result in worse outcomes.
Kasiva Mulli, Researcher
This is a series of updates regarding the Coronavirus from Human Rights Experts