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Covid-19 responses in Africa: Implications for Peace, Security and Public Health

During a nation-wide address on April 13, 2020, President Muhammadu Buhari of Nigeria warned Nigerians about the danger posed by the Covid-19 pandemic. In his words, “This is not a joke; it is a matter of life and death.” To underline the seriousness of the situation, he announced the extension of regional lockdown measures by an additional 14 days within the Federal Capital Territory of Abuja (FCT), Lagos, and Ogun States in a bid to contain the spread of the new coronavirus.1

In December 2019, China identified and notified the global public health community about the emergence of a novel coronavirus among patients at health facilities in the Hubei province of the country. This novel coronavirus was identified as the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 and its attendant illness as coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19).2 Within weeks, the virus had spread rapidly across Wuhan, the Chinese city where it was initially identified, and to other parts of Asia, Europe, and the United States in epidemic proportions. The World Health Organization (WHO) later declared this a pandemic on March 11, 2020 as the new coronavirus continued to spread across the globe with devastating outcomes for lives, livelihoods, and economies.3

As of April 20, 2020, over 2.4 million people have been infected globally and 168,500 have died from Covid-19.4 Although the worst affected countries remain outside the African continent, both in terms of infections and fatalities, the number of infections and deaths continue to rise in Africa. The likelihood of health systems on the continent becoming overwhelmed as the virus spreads is high, given the weak and fragile state of public health systems in most African countries.5 The most recent Covid-19 statistics provided by the Africa Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) indicate that out of the 55 African countries, 52 have reported coronavirus infections amounting to 22,513 cases and 1,126 deaths, with the Union of the Comoros, Lesotho, and Western Sahara as the only African countries that have not reported Covid-19 cases.6

Given the challenges that many African countries face with weak health systems, the implications of the Covid-19 pandemic on public health, peace, and security on the continent are dire. The linkages between public health, societal wellbeing, politics, and the performance of the national health systems are well documented in Africa, particularly in post-conflict countries as well as those experiencing protracted conflicts.7 While the United Nations (UN) Security Council has not yet formally determined the Covid-19 pandemic a threat to international peace and security, as it did in the case of the 2014 Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) epidemic in West Africa,8 the African Union (AU) has expressed concerns about the likelihood of the Covid-19 pandemic impacting negatively on the continent’s stability.9 At its 910th meeting held on February 13, 2020, the African Union’s Peace and Security Council noted that the Covid-19 outbreak is a public health emergency that “could constitute a threat to peace and security on the Continent.”10

Public health responses to the Covid-19 pandemic in Africa have varied from one country to another, but reflect a general trend towards declaring states of emergency followed by restrictions of movement (mostly lockdown and shelter-in-place restrictive measures), except in instances where access to essential supplies such as food or medicine are required. In addition, most African countries have adopted other WHO recommended mitigation strategies including quarantine, social distancing, self-isolation, and improved water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) practices. Others include mass coronavirus testing and contact-tracing at the community level. Although these strategies for mitigating the spread of Covid-19 have proven effective in “plateauing the curve” in China and South Korea,11 they have been accompanied by limited or no measures to address the unintended consequences of the mitigation strategies given the realities of unacceptably high unemployment, inequality, and economic informality in most African countries. It is not surprising that concerns have been raised by the AU and various UN agencies about the implications of the aforementioned Covid-19 response strategies on peace, security, and public health in African countries.

The implementation of mitigation and containment strategies have resulted not only to the perpetuation of existing poverty and inequalities, but also heightened security-related problems.12

Across Africa, incidences of violence perpetrated by security forces deployed to enforce curfews and confinement measures are being reported.13 Deaths and injuries resulting directly from actions by State security personnel have been reported in a number of African countries including Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Kenya, and South Africa.14 The UN has also reported that violence against women – in particular domestic violence – has intensified in countries where lockdown or stay-at-home orders have been implemented.15 This notwithstanding, evidence from the 2014 EVD outbreak in West Africa indicates that public health emergencies can exacerbate the multiple forms of violence that women and girls already face.

Lessons from the West African EVD response also indicate that the outbreak contributed to the loss in traction for immunization programs against tuberculosis, measles, and yellow fever.17 While data is currently limited on the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on maternal and child-health service provision, the WHO and UNICEF have raised concerns about the suspension of immunization interventions18 as several countries including Nigeria have halted vaccination programs,19 which will certainly have an impact on the prevention of outbreaks of common childhood diseases such as polio, measles, rubella, and acute respiratory illnesses with implications for public health, peace, and security. The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) stands out as a country that is on the precipice of disaster. It has been battling three epidemics; EVD, measles, and cholera, and is now faced with the additional challenge of dealing with Covid-19 with a fragile health system due to on-going armed-conflicts in parts of the country.20

Other conflict-affected or post-conflict African countries, including Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Cameroon, Libya, Somalia, and South Sudan, have all reported cases of Covid-19. Should these governments redeploy their troops to deal with public health crises as a result of the coronavirus, disruptions are likely to occur with respect to counterterrorism activities and contribution of troops to peacekeeping missions. Another concern is the possibility of troop deployment becoming another channel for transmitting Covid-19 within countries and across borders. This factor lends itself to the need for a regional African approach to address the pandemic. The Africa Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) is well positioned to provide technical tools and measures that can be adapted to ensure that the contextual dynamics in individual African countries are taken into account in all Covid-19 mitigation responses to address its adverse effects on populations already facing severe socio-economic inequalities. It is also important that measures for ending the Covid-19 pandemic in Africa include measures that ensure equitable and sustainable access to good quality healthcare facilities and treatment. Finally, Covid-19 response measures must also incorporate social policies that transform the socio-economic conditions of the people taking into account the precarious peace and security situation in Africa.

This article was originally published in Kujenga Amani,

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