On February 27th, Nigeria was first the sub-Saharan African country to register a confirmed case of the coronavirus disease -COVID-19, an imported case like subsequent ones across the continent. By April 7th the number of confirmed cases in 52 African countries has risen to over 10,000 with 500 death confirmed, the highest numbers in South Africa, Algeria, Cameroon, Burkina Faso and Côte d'Ivoire. Prior to the first case, the Africa Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) and other partners had been working with various African countries on broader measures of prevention and control after hard lessons from the devastation of the 2014–2016 Ebola epidemic in West Africa.
With the number of COVID-19 cases rising, several African governments have announced varied measures to curb the spread, ranging from quarantines to curfews and lockdowns with bans on transport, markets and social gatherings. The rush to restrict movement to minimise contact indeed is necessary as African health systems have limited resources - ventilators, testing kits, medical staff and ICU beds - to handle a high rate of infections. We have seen countries with better healthcare systems crack with high numbers of the sick and the dead.
Many governments are yet to hold up the 2001 Abuja Declaration to spend at least 15 per cent of the national budget on health. This year Nigeria invested only 4.5 per cent of the national budget in health while in Uganda, a $75 million supplementary budget request to help fight the coronavirus outbreak had more funds for security than health begging the question, are we fighting a war or virus?
Even with these limitations, innovations geared toward solutions are underway. In Senegal, researchers at the Pasteur Institute- Dakar began validation trials on a COVID-19 diagnostic test that can be done at home and produce results in as little as 10 minutes. In Uganda, scientists at Makerere University are in the early stages of making a rapid COVID-19 testing kit to start working next month. Improving testing capacity is key in tracking the virus but many countries are yet to afford massive testing. While COVID19 is new to the world, the experience of some countries battling viral infections means the population is fairly receptive to health interventions even as misinformation and disinformation in the digital era remain a concern.
Be that as it may, advantages on the health front could be threatened by current blanket interventions enforced on the population that have fronted militarism rather than humanitarianism. Restrictions have been ordered under presidential directives or new laws have been enacted, in some cases without declaring a state of emergency, which would at least require governments to adhere to certain duties towards the citizenry.
The COVID-19 emergency response measures in many cases are a contestation of old political powers and reintroducing the unquestionable state power. In Uganda, Kenya and Nigeria there have been reports of widespread police and military brutality. In Kampala, 23-year-old pregnant Nakate was tortured in her neighbourhood by members of a paramilitary group. In Kaduna, Nigeria police killed four people over violation of lockdown rules. In Zimbabwe reports of police harassment have stoked anxiety as lockdown continues.
This widespread excessive use of force disproportionately affects many of the lowest economic status who face difficult choices, to stay home and starve, or venture out and meet violence or death. In times of crisis, a different kind of leadership is required. Brute force could erase the trust in authority that is so much needed to defeat a virus.
A pandemic doesn’t impact everyone the same, existing inequalities between social groups, classes, countries and continents mean that interventions must be tailored to different realities taking into account existing oppressions. In many African countries, most citizens still pay out of pocket to access healthcare. Lockdowns and a slowed economy weakens their capacity to respond to other health conditions.
The informal financial support networks many depend on are now unable to cushion many families from the economic impacts of COVID-19. State responses must, therefore, look beyond emergency food for a few vulnerable families to include broader interventions that help communities withstand the parallel economic crisis. African countries will also need stronger regional collaborations to defeat the coronavirus and its economic aftershocks.
Lockdowns have also worsened other social challenges as domestic violence is reported to be rising. We must treat gender-based violence as a serious emergency within an larger emergency. This pandemic is not only a health threat but an opportunity to write more humane norms and reject rules and practices that dehumanise and debase the marginalised.
Rosebell Kagumire is a feminist writer, award-winning blogger and social-political commentator. She is the curator and editor of African Feminism- AF, a platform that documents experiences of African women.