Across Africa, Pandemic Lockdowns Pose New Risks for the Most ...

As the fate of the world amidst and beyond the Covid-19 pandemic looms on the horizon, it is becoming rather clear that the notion of the virus as a global pandemic is logistically flawed. A more accurate approach would be to view it as a simultaneous outbreak of innumerable local epidemics, slightly at odds with each other. This is evidenced by the stark difference in the response mechanisms adopted to combat Covid-19 and the varied ripple effects the virus has had on different regions of the globe, Africa being the most vulnerable. As the Western countries unleash comprehensive economic and social ‘cushions’ to mitigate the effects of the novel virus on their economies and citizenries, poorer countries in Africa are concerned with the survival of daily income earners in the wake of a lockdown.

The African-European Parliamentary Initiative (AEPI) recently organized a conference titled ‘Responding to Covid-19: The Situation in Africa’ which The Youth Cafe was privileged to be a part of. The Youth Cafe was represented by Bidemi Boyade, the Public Relations, Communications, and Digital Strategy Associate at the organization who highlighted the role of the youth in Africa in fighting the pandemic. The conference, hosted by veteran Irish broadcaster, Mike Murphy, was a discourse on the challenges posed by Covid-19 to African countries through the perspectives of different individuals around the globe.  A notable question that lingered throughout the conversations was: ‘what price are African nations paying as they attempt to implement the internationally-recommended responses to Covid-19?’

It came out quite clearly from the discussions that ensued that the cost is already manifesting in countries that are at the forefront of the fight against the virus in Africa. The opening question by Mike Murphy to Brendan Howlin TD, the vice president of AEPI: “Can you imagine the odds facing an African country and an African people as they face the impact of this crisis?”  explicitly reflected these sentiments.

This news item shows some of the consequences of Covid-19 responses in Kenya.

(Source: , Citizen is a local news station in Kenya.)

Countries in Africa have made strides to counter the spread of the Coronavirus through various recommended strategies. The most outstanding interventions being bans on public transport, curfews, unnecessary movement bans, border closures, and complete country lockdowns. So far, countable African countries such as Uganda, South Africa, and Rwanda are on complete lockdown as others implement different strategies as they monitor the spread of the virus. Prof. Nazarius Mbona Tumwesigye of the Makerere School of Public Health in Uganda set the scene in Uganda by highlighting the various measures taken saying, “…all in all there are different measures people(countries) are taking…”. He then went ahead to share a few slides concerning the same.

(Slide shared by Prof. Nazarius Mbona Tumwesigye while making his presentation)

It is important to note that these responses are being enforced progressively as governments are being forced to think on their feet as they consider whether or not implementation of these measures are feasible options in their local contexts. Hon. Martha Karua, a member of the AEPI Advisory Board and an advocate for social justice in Kenya, during the conference confirmed this state of affairs stating, “Africa is adopting what suits it at the moment.” For instance, in Kenya, the government initiated the battle against Coronavirus by banning social gatherings and closing down all academic institutions when the first case was confirmed. The second phase was restricted public transportation, mandatory sanitization and washing of hands in public areas. The third phase was the controversial dusk-to-dawn curfew and, finally, the present situation where movement in and out of certain counties which are considered the national epicentres of the virus has been banned, in addition to declaring the wearing of masks in public mandatory.

Kenya presents a good example of the price African countries have had to pay in an attempt to enforce measures meant to flatten the curve of the spread of Covid-19. The country was shocked by the manner in which the police forces enforced the 7pm curfew on the day it became effective. The officers fired tear gas, shot guns in the air and beat people with canes and rubber shoes allegedly occasioning the death of twelve Kenyans and others injured. Sadly, the number of deaths was more than those of Coronavirus which was ten at the time. In Uganda, the curfew is being enforced by the army with no humanitarian considerations. “…there is a curfew at night which starts at 7pm and the army basically goes around and can do whatever they want…”, Sally Hayden, an award-winning Irish journalist based in Uganda said, as she shed light on the happenings in Uganda. She further clarified that the government disapproved of the military’s means of enforcement but they nonetheless continue. This goes to show that the effects of Coronavirus enforcement strategies may cost the continent more that the virus itself. Police brutality in Kenya has been witnessed in many other instances and is therefore not an uncommon occurrence in the country. The Independent Police Oversight Authority (IPOA) is carrying out investigations on the same, hopefully to prosecute the officers responsible for such atrocities.

The healthcare sectors of African countries have also been hit hard by the pandemic. In Kenya and Uganda, the strict enforcement of the curfews has hindered access to healthcare by desperate citizens during the curfew hours. In both countries, a number of expectant women have lost their lives in the process of struggling to reach healthcare facilities which have become an arduous task given the public transport restrictions and the ban on private transportation in Uganda. “…women are dying during childbirth and we’ve had cases of women delivering on the way to the hospital and others walking to hospital with no one to help them…”, said Prof. Nazarius as he pointed out the situation in Uganda.  The ban on private transportation also caused the death of a twelve-year-old Ugandan boy who died because he could not get to a hospital to get a blood transfusion. This was narrated by Sally Hayden and she added saying “…what’s happened here is that they’ve banned all private and public transport and you can only travel if you have a special permit or if it’s one of the vehicles that the local authorities are using…”.

(Slide shared by Prof. Nazarius as he demonstrated the impact of the lockdown and ban on transportation on the mortality rate during maternity in Uganda)

In addition, there has been a challenge in the response of non-COVID medical care in these countries. This has been occasioned by the scale-down of the private health sector which has effectuated a strain on the public health facilities. Dr. Ouma Oluga, a Chief Officer of Health at the Nairobi Metropolitan Service shed light on the healthcare situation in Nairobi stating, “…what has happened with COVID is that most of the private health facilities have scaled down their operations or closed their routine clinics and that means that our public health facilities are overwhelmed…”. These facilities are now tending to more patients with the same infrastructure and workforce. For instance, Dr. Oulga further gave an example of two hospitals where thirty deliveries of babies would take place in a day but now the number has risen to forty yet the supply of commodities, the number of workers and infrastructure remains the same.

Furthermore, the shortage of medical supplies and infrastructure is affecting the positive responses to the virus. Majority of the continent’s nations depend on other countries such as India and China for the supply of medical stock such as testing kits, Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), beds, ventilators among others. The ramifications of the outbreak of the virus on the global supply chain has therefore negatively impacted African nations which do not manufacture these commodities locally. “…most African countries do not have any manufacturing industries for usual medicines…for even beds…because of the restricted movement and the cost of expenses, you find that the turnaround time is also a challenge…”, Dr. Oluga elucidated on the effect that the global supply chain has had on the supply of medical facilities to Kenya.  This is thwarting the efforts put in place to control the spread of Coronavirus in Africa. In the same vein, the medical workforce at the front line in the fights against Covid-19 in various African countries are shouldering the worst burden of this deadly virus. Healthcare workers in some countries like Malawi are not being provided with PPEs which is the most basic requirement in stopping the spread.” …yesterday there was a strike in Malawi by doctors and nurses because they have no access to personal protective equipment…”, Dr. Ciara Conlan, a Medical Doctor working in infectious diseases narrated the situation.  Also, governments do not have sufficient resources to keep the medical staff and other enforcement personnel motivated.

Needless to say, the outbreak of the Coronavirus has had tremendous effects on the world economy sparing not even the so-called ‘rich’ countries. The impact on struggling African economies is therefore a whole new ball game. The anxiety surrounding the fate of African economies is visible, as Hon. Martha Karua stated, “…we don’t know, our economy, how long will it hold out?”  Case in point is Nigeria whose economy is undergoing a double-tragedy: the Covid-19 outbreak and the consequent tumbling of international oil prices. This situation, if not controlled, is projected to eventually lead to an imminent recession. This is so because oil is the backbone of Nigeria’s economy. In response to this, President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration has taken measures to contain the spread of the virus and its impact by releasing contingency funds to Nigeria’s Centre for Disease Control and providing an economic stimulus package to alleviate the impact for households and businesses hit by the downturn.

The economic consequences of Covid-19 in Africa have had a direct flow-on-effect on the livelihoods of sections of the population. In South Africa, the first African country to affect a complete lockdown, people living in informal settlements who rely on the daily economy have been invited to starvation by the lockdown as most of them live from hand to mouth. The state of affairs is similar to Uganda’s which was well-captured by Sally: “…a lot of people live hand to mouth, they’ve been told that they can’t work now because they are not selling foodstuffs so they’re telling me that they are going to starve…”, she pointed out.

The above is indicative of the economic strain retailers are grappling with due to the pandemic.

(Source: , Citizen is a local news station in Kenya.)

This is the situation in most urban informal settlements, such as Kibera and Mathare in Kenya, where social distancing and lockdowns are just pipe dreams given the density of the population, majority with communal toilets and taps coupled with the shortage of water and unsanitary conditions. These ‘special circumstances’ were recognized by the President of Ireland, Michael Higgins, in his opening remarks to the conference as he called for global solidarity during these very difficult times and thereafter. In Rwanda, the government is providing food to destitute citizens who have not been able to afford food as a result of the lockdown. In addition, President Kagame’s government has warned traders against raising the prices of foodstuff and other essential commodities. So far 108 businesses and traders caught selling food at higher prices have already been fined according to the Rwandan Ministry of Trade and Industry.

Undoubtedly, expecting lockdowns in African countries is almost an impossible task as it is nuanced with humanitarian and governance considerations. This was highlighted by Lord David Chidgey, a Board member of AEPI: “…many African countries are adopting lockdowns in order to hold the spread of Coronavirus but this is going to be unworkable as few African countries have the capacity to administer a centralized strategy…”, he said. Dr. Ciara Conlan working as a Medical Doctor in infectious diseases called attention to Malawi where the Human Rights Defenders Coalition successfully challenged the lockdown order by the government citing the effects it would have on the poor and vulnerable in the country.

The assumption that African countries are more equipped to fight Covid-19 as they had managed to phase out Ebola has proved to be just that, an assumption. The Ebola pandemic was fought with the assistance of donor countries and humanitarian organizations. Covid-19, being a global pandemic, every state is concerned with fighting the virus nationally hence hanging the more vulnerable countries out to dry, “…when they had Ebola, resources came flooding in…everything they needed…this time they say they’ve been given nothing…”, Sally mentioned.  Additionally, the World Food Programme has cut the food rations of South Sudan refugees in Uganda by 30% due to the shortages the organization is grappling with occasioned by the Coronavirus outbreak. This was captured in Sally’s sentiments as follows, “…hundreds of thousands of South Sudanese refugees are in the camps close to here. They already had their rations cut by 30% on April 1 because of the World Food Programme shortage…” In ordinary circumstances, she expounded, it would have made humanitarian appeals to donor countries for funding.

Despite the exceptional challenges posed by Covid-19 as opposed to Ebola, there is one lesson, which came out quite clearly during the course of the Conference, that can be borrowed from the response to Ebola in Africa. This is community engagement to enhance the ownership of the pandemic by local communities. Two of the panelists, Lord David Chidgey and Dr. Oluga discussed this extensively. “…WHO recognized that inadequate engagement with affected communities was a significant obstacle to an effective response to the epidemic…”, stated Lord Chidgey, who chaired the UK-All-Party Parliamentary Group Report tilted, ‘Lessons from Ebola Affected Communities.’ Dr. Oluga shared similar thoughts which indicated that community engagement and ownership are already being implemented in Kenya through various organizations such as Shofco and Mathare Youth Networks as well as community health workers. In addition, Bidemi Boyade, during his presentation, expressed the efforts made by The Youth café to involve the younger generation in the struggle against Covid-19 through fostering community resilience. “Young people are a tremendous and essential asset worth investing in, which is why it is very important not to overlook the influence of the youth during a global crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic, “he asserted.

Ultimately, when the Coronavirus dust settles, some countries will emerge with slight scratches, others with bruises but others, unfortunately, will barely survive it. This goes to show that the virus may be a ‘global pandemic’, but the impact on various regions of the world might prove otherwise.  The rise in nationalism and states throwing global solidarity out of the window is a step in the wrong direction. As capable nations rush to save themselves from the pandemic, vulnerable countries in Africa are almost singlehandedly paying huge costs to keep the virus at bay. Covid-19 is continuing to strip African countries naked, exposing their already existing inadequacies, especially in socio-economic infrastructure. As appeals for global solidarity and ‘Corona socialism’ are being called for, the question is what it will cost African countries to emerge successfully into the COVID-19-free world.

Article originally published at : The Youth Cafe Website

Originally published : The Youth Cafe

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