Home»Analysis»Accountability International’s Coronavirus Disease (COVID – 19) Scorecard for Africa
Freedom and Oppression
A significant part of holding leaders accountable in the Coronavirus disease (Covid-19) response is playing a watchdog role in how human rights are protected or trampled by elected leaders in Africa. Some countries have exhibited enduring respect for human rights and this continues under the epidemic response. Others, as you will read below, have been opportunistic and taken COVID-19 as a moment to secure power, suppress opposition and silence civil society.
Out of the 54 countries in Africa for which data is available, 13 of them (Burundi, Central African Republic, Chad, Congo-Brazzaville, Eswatini/Swaziland, Guinea-Bissau, Libya, Djibouti, Madagascar, Mauritania, Saharawi Republic/Western Sahara, Somalia and Tunisia) have instituted no measures to deal with the spread of the epidemic, according to the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law’s INCL’s) Covid-19 Civic Freedom Tracker but the other 41 countries (75%) have implemented a variety of measures ranging from a state of emergency to special Covid-19-related decrees. The INCL has no data for Comoros, Mauritius, São Tome and Príncipe, and Seychelles.
With the exception of Eswatini (Swaziland), all Southern African countries have implemented legal measures to cope with the spread of the pandemic. In all cases, freedom of assembly has been severely restricted with citizens confined to their homes, and only permitted to travel short distances in order to obtain food, medical assistance, or to deliver essential services. Public gatherings have been limited to less than 100 people, in some cases 50 and, in the cases of Zambia and Zimbabwe to five and two people, respectively.
Human rights activists, policymakers, philanthropists, and public health professionals should pay attention to whether a country’s official response to the novel Coronavirus disease is based on a special act of parliament – in other words, where the response has been scrutinized and endorsed by political parties not in power – or whether based on an order grounded in regulatory, including emergency, powers vested in various government ministries and departments. The rapid onset of the pandemic has seen numerous instances of contradictory rules being issued by different ministers – and also of officials on the ground, especially police, misinterpreting or exceeding their proper remit.
It is important to note that where national authorities overstep the mark in their application of emergency responses to Covid-19, or where civil servants exceed their powers, the people targeted as a result are very often marginalized and excluded populations: women and girls, lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, and queer (LGBTIQ) persons, people who use drugs, sex workers, people who pass through prisons and other places of detention, migrants and displaced people, refugees, the elderly, the mentally ill, people living with disabilities indigenous people, civil society activists, journalists, and perceived political opponents. To these must be added, as victims of prejudiced Covid-19 responses, the economically excluded because the poor generally are rendered additionally exposed to the virus as a result of inadequate access to decent health-care and sanitary living conditions. Some of these communities have also been demonized by officialdom or sectors of civil society for supposedly spreading the virus.
Key areas of concern:
Press Freedom and Freedom of Expression
Several countries have instituted measures restricting press freedom and freedom of expression under the guise of stamping out disinformation or “fake news” relating to the pandemic and to the state’s response programme. While a number of these already had restrictive laws in this regard and have shut down civic spaces even further (Egypt, Zimbabwe, Morocco: for example, the Moroccan Minister of Culture, Youth and Sports has suspended the publication and distribution of print newspapers until further notice), it is very alarming that relatively open, democratic societies such as South Africa and Ghana have also seen fit to follow suit with punitive measures on freedom of expression.
Zambia’s ruling party has apparently used the outbreak of Covid-19 to settle political scores, closing down The Post newspaper and Prime TV; both media houses are perceived to be supportive of the opposition, and in the case of the television station, it was shut down for allegedly having refused to carry government Covid-19 announcements. In Tanzania on 20 April, journalist Ussi Hamad with the daily Daim a newspaper was suspended from work for six months for merely reporting on the pandemic; this came days after the Mwananchi daily newspaper had its online license suspended for posting a picture of President John Pombe Magufuli shopping, surrounded by people, which provided a debate on social distancing. Meanwhile, Egyptian authorities have expelled journalist Ruth Michaelson of The Guardian after she reported that Egypt has far more coronavirus cases than have been officially reported. In Ethiopia, a months-long internet shutdown in parts of the country aimed at curbing the Oromo separatist group has prevented millions of Ethiopians from accessing information about the pandemic.
Curbs on freedom of expression are keenly felt by artists and cultural workers who are either unable to make a living or travel to safe residencies as a result of lockdowns during the crisis. Also, such creatives are important interpreters of social realities for their communities and broader national societies, so any critiques they produce of state responses to the pandemic are likely to fall foul of emergency rules that curb free expression. Free press and expression and arts rights justice campaigners continue to monitor such issues.
Reports of heavy-handed enforcement of the regulations, including, in some cases extrajudicial killings, by police, army, and security force personnel have been recorded in a number of countries. In South Africa, there have been eight deaths reported at the hands of the police enforcing the lockdown, and there have been many more instances of the police and army subjecting citizens to assaults and degrading treatment for allegedly being in breach of containment regulations. Reports are also emerging of a similar pattern in Angola, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Nigeria, Kenya, the DRC, Senegal, and Uganda.
Prisons and refugee camps
Public health authorities have warned that prisons are one of the greatest risks for the spread of the virus because of the manner in which prisoners are kept in confined spaces. In Africa this risk is further exacerbated by the well documented overcrowding of prisons across the continent, but to date few African countries have released awaiting-trial prisoners or those incarcerated for minor non-violent offences. However, on 5 April, King Mohammed VI of Morocco pardoned 5,645 prisoners in a bid to curb the spread of the virus by alleviating overcrowding, though the prisoners were not released wholesale, but rather in phases based on factors such as their youth and conduct. This represents 7,05% to be released of Morocco’s reported incarcerated population of 80,000 (two of whom tested positive), and 10,200 warders (nine of whom have tested positive). Ethiopia has released 4,000 prisoners, while Cameroon has also announced a limited release of prisoners – excluding those accused of terrorism, separatism and other serious offences.
Amnesty International demanded that authorities in Sub-Saharan Africa “must take urgent action to protect people in detention from Covid-19 including releasing prisoners of conscience, reviewing cases of pre-trial detention, and guaranteeing access to healthcare and sanitation products in all facilities.”
Many of the same concerns relating to prisons can be applied to another form of unfree detention – that experienced by migrants in the continent’s massive refugee camps in countries as diverse as Chad, Uganda, Kenya, Ghana, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, and Zambia. Because of rudimentary health and sanitation facilities, these camps, which often host tens or even hundreds of thousands of refugees, are exceptionally vulnerable to respiratory infections such as influenza and, if their residents are provided with inadequate health-care could become new epicentres of the pandemic. Most early results of pilot tests regarding the possible transmission of the Covid-19 virus via feces have proven negative, yet implementing Sustainable Development Goal 6, access to water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH), as well as public campaigns for people to regularly wash their hands, will prove critical here. Sudan alone had 1.86 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) as of July 2019, and the African Center for Justice and Peace Studies (ACJPS) has called on both the authorities and separatist rebel groups to jointly under UN auspices come up with an action plan to ensure non-discriminatory inclusion of these displacees in health-care provisions during the epidemic, including access to adequate information on combating the spread of the virus.
In Angola, Amnesty International has reported that NGO workers were assaulted and arrested by security forces when they attempted to deliver health information and essential hygiene products to San communities in the remote parts of Cuando Cubango province. In general, indigenous communities across the continent, from the San in the Kalahari to the Amazigh in Morocco’s Atlas Mountains, report that they have been neglected in the Covid-19 response, owing to their lack of resources, lack of access to basic healthcare, water and sanitation, their geographic remoteness, as well as institutionalised discrimination.
In fact activists and health care workers have been bemoaning the lack of guidelines for health-care personnel on how to continue standard care and visits to remote indigenous communities in the face of the epidemic, as visits to these communities might perpetuate an outbreak in these areas. Some hypothesize these communities may have lower resistance due to lower exposure to coronaviruses generally, which would make them additionally vulnerable to discriminatory health practices. The Indigenous Peoples of Africa Co-ordinating Committee, a network covering 22 countries, warned that while lockdowns appeared effective, they could not be imposed against indigenous peoples because of their nomadic lifestyles.
Communities such as the LGBTIQ community that are already marginalized and vulnerable due to a range of factors including poverty and discrimination, now face further challenges during the pandemic; many are in fact rendered even more at-risk due to the response of authorities under emergency regulations. A now well-known example is that on 29 March on the outskirts of Kampala, Uganda, when the police raided a shelter and arrested 14 gay men, four transgender women, and two bisexual men, charging them with breaking social distancing rules (set at a maximum of 10 people and since reduced to five); equal rights campaigners have countered that the arrests were motivated by homophobia and transphobia and not the emergency regulations.
Concerning reports are emerging that several Southern African states (Botswana, South Africa, Zambia, and Namibia) are deporting hundreds of illegal Zimbabwean immigrants back to Zimbabwe under the guise of quarantine requirements. Given the history and continuation of human rights abuses occurring within Zimbabwe and a shortage of food, water and sanitation within the country, this is a serious issue that undermines the desired inclusiveness of universal access to health-care.
Lastly, it worth noting that the pandemic is, in some parts of the continent, happening in a context of armed conflict. The pandemic is likely to exacerbate and fuel some conflicts: for example, Islamic militants have now (April 2020) launched a fresh offensive in northern Mozambique.
While many African countries have launched epidemic prevention measures, a few have taken the opportunity afforded by the necessary emergency response to the pandemic to achieve ulterior aims. Human rights abuses are occurring across a broad spectrum and these need to be monitored closely. Of particular concern are the economic effects of lockdown and other quarantine measures on economic development and social stability. If social unrest from hunger or disease occurs, there is a possibility of heavy-handed responses from various states. Africa’s governments need to be held accountable through active dialogue in this time of crisis with a broad range of stakeholders to ensure an inclusive health-care response is backed up by respect for universal human rights.
*Accountability International is an African-led civil society organisation that works to improve accountability to the most marginalised.
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