The COVID-19 outbreak pandemic has rapidly re-shaped ways of life in Africa and across the world. It has destroyed lives, it threatens to undermine economies, and above all it challenges existing narratives about the economic and global order. Because of its high rates of human to human (h2h) transmission, the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends physical (read social) distancing as one of the minimum precautionary measures to contain the virus.
Numerous countries the world over have enforced lockdowns as a result. As the pandemic continues to spread in Africa, governments are faced with dilemmas. Speculative analyses have warned that with given the continent’s poor health systems and lack of ventilators, the pandemic may cause more destruction than what malaria, Ebola and cholera. But anthropologists and economists have also cautioned that given the informal nature of many African economies, and the number of people that live at or below the poverty line, a tight restrictions could harm as many people as the virus itself.
African governments are thus grappling with whether they should prioritise containing the virus through lockdowns and risk threatening livelihoods or risk losing lives to COVID-19 while prioritising livelihoods. Resolving this problem, and avoiding it in future, requires us to tackle underlying structural issues of governance that have consistently undermined the delivery of effective public services in many countries in post-colonial Africa.
Lockdown Vs. livelihoods
Thirty one African countries have so far enforced partial curfews of full lockdowns according to the International Centre for Not-for-Profit Law. Against this, various analyses have encouraged African states to consider measures that are applicable to its highly informalised economy. The government of Malawi saw its bid to introduce a lockdown postponed as a result of the granting of an injunction by a court of law on Friday 17 April, following a complaint by the Human Rights Defenders Coalition that the restrictions breached human rights. As at 15 April, the country had 16 confirmed infections and 2 deaths.
In other cases, including Rwanda, Nigeria and South Africa, gross human rights violations have been recorded as governments have struggled to persuade citizens to comply with lockdowns. For its part, Zimbabwe enforced a 21-day lockdown from March 31 that was extended on 19 April. The number of cases had increased from 7 to 25 by the end of the first period of lockdown, but the government has been heavily criticised for enforcing a lockdown without necessary social safety nets in place.
South Africa has also has some success in reducing its daily infection rates, implying that the lockdown has been succesful in this regard. Yet having enforced its lockdown on 27 March, together with other measures including the closing of borders and a commitment to testing, the country has also seen raids on “bottle shops” and rising discontent with the economic and social impacts of the restrictions.
In this sense, South Africa is something of a test case, and other African leaders are now asking themselves why citizens are defying lockdowns despite the fact that they appear to be effective in reducing the potentially devastating effects of the pandemic.
This situation calls for deeper reflection and collective analysis to inform the responses of governments and civil society groups now and in the future. These discussions should push African governments to reform and recreate governance frameworks that work to minimise the multi-dimensional inequalities faced by citizens, and which make it so hard to respond effective to emergencies like COVID-19.
Living outside the ‘State’
The poor governance architecture in a number of African countries has resulted in a lot of people living outside the state as coping mechanisms to meet their daily needs. A lot of people survive hand to mouth through various economic activities in the informal sector. Poverty is exacerbated by the absence of effective services in key areas such as water, electricity and sanitation. Public health systems are poor and the maternal morbidity and mortality in most countries reflects a lack of commitment to either healthcare or the needs of women. In Zimbabwe health professionals have for more than a year, been protesting several times concerning the incapacitation to do their work.
As a result, citizens, family networks and self-help groups have, for many decades, effectively filled the gaps left by the state. This has helped to ensure that the daily needs of families and communities have been met. The innovation and creativity of the population has in many cases prevented mass hunger, despite low levels of unemployment and high food prices. Non-governmental organisations both local and international have also played an important role, supplementing the provision public services and goods. Instead of building on the efforts of citizens and these bodies, many governments have become complacent, using these activities not a source of inspiration but as an excuse not to the harder. As authoritarian and semi-authoritarian regimes have focussed on consolidating power and entrenching opportunities for self-advancement, the gendered, classed and racialised inequalities within our societies have grown more pronounced.
In the midst of the Lockdown/Livelihoods dilemma, it is clear that the COVID-19 pandemic is simply reinforcing these inequalities.Too many states have adopted a business-as-usual approach. Thus, most countries have rushed to enforce lockdowns without putting in place the necessary social safety nets for citizens. And some have chosen to simply not enforce lockdowns/curfews for fear that they will not be able to fulfil the obligations that this would generate. Either way, citizens are once again left on their own, as ruling elites continue to put their own interests before that of their nations. In some cases, political leaders are even investing in private hospitals while public hospitals are continuously neglected, and public health professionals continue to work without necessary protective equipment.
Given the failure of political elites to meet their obligations to do what they can to preserve the sanctity of human life, it is time for African citizens to unite and remind our governments that they have already had more than enough time to get their houses in order. If COVID-19 can do one positive thing it is to galvanise citizens to push states to take full responsibility to ensure citizens’ social and -economic rights.
To achieve this, we need to ask the difficult questions now: What kind of nudge is needed in this moment to make governments deliver? How can that be used to recreate a different governance order post COVID-19?
The new norm
Looking at the infection rates across the continent, it is very possible that the number of cases will increase exponentially as winter approaches for some countries. If nothing is done, women and the poor and marginalised will bear the brunt of the pandemic, whether lockdowns are enforced or not.
However, COVID-19 can also be a defining moment that can turn the tide and lead to more responsive government in the future.
But if Africa is to reap this more positive harvest from the economic and political shock that COVID-19 will bring, we must act now.
Ordinary citizens, civil society groups, politicians of all stripes myst come together and make it clear to their leaders that failure to act is not an option. Aid and loans designed to help in the fight against coronavirus must not be diverted to corruption. Food must be provided to those who will otherwise go without. A higher proportion of government spending must be directed at healthcare and education.
It is not enough to rely on loans and bailouts from the international financial institutions and foreign donors. Unless we seize the opportunity to push for structural change, the coronavirus will only deepen our dependency on the outside world. African governments must confront the reality of the man-made problems they have contributed to. Local and international solidarity and support remain critical in fighting against the pandemic, but must not be taken as a substitution of states’ obligations.
in other words, as African citizens we need to call our governments to respond to this pandemic in ways that go beyond healthcare to tackle governance challenges that sustain unemployment, poor health-care systems, and widespread poverty. Demanding a new culture of accountability and transparency, we should make it clear that we will no longer give our votes to leaders who fail to build stronger states that can protect our social and economic rights – even in emergencies like COVID-19.