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Do coronavirus lockdowns in Africa make sense?

Daniel Pelz
April 24, 2020

Hunger, violence and despair: lockdowns are meant to keep Africa’s coronavirus cases in check, but many people are suffering as a result — especially the poor.

Soldiers and a police officer amid a cluster of corrrugated iron shacks
Image: Reuters/M. Hutchings

The Kenyan police did not hold back. When the government imposed a lockdown in response to rising numbers of COVID-19 cases, Kenya descended into a night of violence. The press watched in disbelief as police officers beat up defenseless women, sending shockwaves across Kenya.

"We're not at war," wrote the country's biggest newspaper, Daily Nation. Its commentary oozed rage and helplessness.

Violence has not been limited to Kenya either. Amnesty International reported that police in Zambia assaulted people who were found gathering in bars. Zimbabwean security forces manhandled hundreds of traders because they were selling their produce at a market without permission. In South Africa too, police have been heavy-handed in response to anyone disobeying lockdown measures.

Read more: HRW says police brutality thrives under Kenya coronavirus curfew

Millions without an income

Senseless and unnecessarily violent. That's how Alex Broadbent describes the police action. The philosophy professor at University of Johannesburg specializes in observing epidemics. He also does not think South Africa has its priorities straight when it comes to the coronavirus: "Lockdowns don't make sense in Africa if it means destroying the economic livelihoods of citizens," he told DW.

The lockdown has hit millions of self-employed people particularly hard. Around 85% of Africa's workforce falls into this category: craftspeople, street vendors, and day laborers. Lockdowns are not the only problem: borders are sealed, and goods cannot reach market. With few exceptions, shops and markets must stay closed. Every day more people are losing their incomes, because the lockdown forbids them from working. At the same time, food costs are skyrocketing.

Read more: South African unemployment rate hits 10-year record high

Fruits and veg vendors by the side of a road
Many people cannot afford to stay homeImage: DW/J. Beck

"On a continent where there is no social safety net for most people, the jobless are forced to answer a very simple question: shall I die of COVID-19 or hunger? It's no wonder that many ignore the lockdown measures. They have to earn money somehow," says Nigerian social scientist Lynda Chinenye Iroulo of the German Institute of Global and Area Studies (GIGA) in Hamburg.

The UN forecasts that Africa could have 30 million more people in poverty as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Aid organizations are warning that 50 million in the poverty-stricken Sahel region could starve. Nigeria's economic capital Lagos is already feeling the consequences. Crime has exploded  — robberies are even happening in safe suburbs.

Read more: Africa: More poverty despite economic growth

Ten in a shack

Experts are also unconvinced of the efficacy of lockdowns. In Africa's big cities, at least 60% of people live in slums, often at close quarters. Africa's biggest slum in Nairobi, Kibera, alone accounts for one million people.

"If 10 people have to share a shack, with one toilet, which is also shared with other people, then it's an illusion to believe a lockdown can work," says Alex Broadbent. "It's also impossible to do nothing," he admits.

The pandemic has left Africa comparatively unscathed so far. The number of confirmed cases is still under 25,000. The actual number may be much higher though as most countries do not have adequate testing capacities. Nigeria, Africa's most populous country, has conducted just 6,000 tests for some 200 million people.

Informal residential structured clustered together
Social distancing is as good as impossible in Kibera, NairobiImage: Rachel Creed

Is regional isolation a solution?

Suddenly, all manner of resources need to be realized at once, because Africa could be the next epicenter of the pandemic. Infections are even being reported in remote areas, where hardly any medical care exists. The consequences could be staggering: the UN predicts 300,000 deaths in the coming months.

Broadbent believes that regional lockdowns could be part of the solution. Individual regional blocks could be isolated. "People would not be allowed to travel in or out of the region, but goods could be traded. That way at least some economic activities could be continued," he says.

Importantly, more testing needs to be conducted, risk groups need to be isolated, and infected people and suspected cases need to be quarantined quickly.

During the Ebola epidemic in 2014 and 2015, the breakthrough came through widespread awareness campaigns about how people could protect themselves. That strategy could also help today.

"In remote areas without internet or mobile connectivity, it is difficult for the locals to inform themselves about the coronavirus," Lynda Iroulo warns. "The people need to be informed. One has to involve local authorities like traditional and religious leaders to warn the people."

Read more: Ebola-hit West African nations on alert amid coronavirus pandemic

A Red Cross worker gestures to a gathering of people
Educaton was a weapon against Ebola in 2015Image: Abu-Bakarr Jalloh

Help, and fast

At the same time, Iroulo says the continent needs more local solutions. Progress has been made: a research center in Senegal is working on making rapid tests. A Ghanaian university has developed a cheap hand disinfectant.

These developments do not change the fact that millions of Africans still need financial or food aid. In South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya, authorities have begun providing food to the poorest. The rollout has been slow, and many of the needy have missed out on key government assistance.