Dispatch

Africa Meets Pandemic With Violence, Confusion

The coronavirus arrived late to the continent, but the early responses could backfire.

Commuters stand in a line to curb the spread of the coronavirus as they proceed to board a ferry at the Likoni ferry terminal in Mombasa, Kenya, on March 27.
Commuters stand in a line to curb the spread of the coronavirus as they proceed to board a ferry at the Likoni ferry terminal in Mombasa, Kenya, on March 27. AFP via Getty Images
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EDITOR’S NOTE: We’re making some of our coronavirus pandemic coverage free for nonsubscribers. You can read those articles here. You can also listen to our weekly coronavirus podcast, Don’t Touch Your Face, and subscribe to our newsletters here.

NAIROBI—The COVID-19 pandemic arrived relatively late to Africa, but the early responses from some African countries have been chaotic and violent, possibly helping to spread the disease. 

About 23,000 people fled South Africa on the eve of its lockdown, rushing the border into neighboring Mozambique on March 27. In Kenya, among a number of other countries on the continent, security forces have beaten, whipped, humiliated, and even killed civilians, including a 13-year-old boy, in an attempt to enforce curfews, bans on movement, and lockdowns. Similar pictures have emerged from Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second-largest city, with armed, uniformed men lining up people and shoving them onto the beds of police pickup trucks or encircling groups of people sitting on the ground. 

“When it comes to the arrests of those ‘violating’ regulations not deliberately, we see them packed like sardines in police trucks. This is sure [a] breeding ground for the spreading of the virus,” said Jestina Mukoko, the national director for the Zimbabwe Peace Project. “The police are also being heavy-handed with citizens—we have seen some citizens being assaulted. We are also worried that the police are at risk of catching the virus because we do not see them in protective clothing. We wish the police would issue warnings and avoid having too many people in small spaces.”

Many critics say the lockdowns and nighttime curfews recently put in place across Africa the past weeks have prompted unrest and disarray that may only help spread the disease, including mass cross-border migration, state-sponsored violence, and economic strife. Across Africa, borders and airspaces have mostly closed, and even though they are treated as an exception, humanitarian agencies are concerned they might not be able to move relief goods in time, and food cuts could also cause people to move. 

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“African governments appear to have adopted the lockdown policy without either consultation with the affected people (I can see no cases in which they have done this) or analysis of its likely impacts on the trajectory of infections and the livelihoods of people,” said Alex de Waal, the executive director of the World Peace Foundation at Tufts University.

“Everyone is still trying to figure out what the least harmful approach would be,” said Emma Naylor-Ngugi, CARE USA’s regional director for East, Central, and Southern Africa.

The continent has been late to catch the virus, with the second case in Africa recorded in Algeria only at the end of February. Currently the only model available to governments in this part of the world is restricting movement, but this has already backfired spectacularly.

As of March 31, Africa had nearly 5,300 coronavirus cases, a small number for a big continent, but implementing testing has been slow, making it is possible that the virus has spread further. After weeks of precious few samples taken, significant shipments of tests and supplies donated by the Chinese billionaire Jack Ma are being distributed across Africa now. It is expected that with increased testing, numbers will rise (though the quality of the tests is already being called into question). 

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As test positives are growing, restrictions like lockdowns and dusk-to-dawn curfews are being swiftly put into place. The mass movement, brutality, and overall chaos unleashed in countries around the continent already as a result of these policies suggest that such measures can be, at best, counterproductive. That was especially true when thousands of Mozambican miners and farmers rushed over the border after South Africa announced a nationwide, military-patrolled lockdown on March 23

“I’m concerned that migration and mobility are not being considered in South Africa’s response to COVID-19. There has been no coordinated response at the Southern African Development Community level, which, for a region of such high mobility, is very worrying,” said Jo Vearey, the director of the African Centre for Migration & Society at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. 

It is not possible to quantify how many thousands—or hundreds of thousands—of Mozambicans work as miners, farmers, or informally in small businesses, living hand to mouth without contracts in neighboring South Africa. South Africa has the second-biggest economy on the continent, while Mozambique ranked 180th out of 189 nations on the United Nations Human Development Index. Many of the Mozambicans in South Africa work in Gauteng province, in the center of the country, living in townships on the outskirts of the provincial capital, Johannesburg. 

Victor Cossa, a Mozambican miner who works in South Africa and is the president of the Association of Mozambican Miners and Farmer Workers in South Africa, estimated that about 35 percent of the 18,000 miners he represents left South Africa. He told Foreign Policy that when South Africa announced its lockdown, those in the country living in close quarters in hostels sharing a kitchen or on temporary permits decided to leave. People worried about being able to properly quarantine, that their yearly work permits might expire, and that they wouldn’t be able to make money to eat. They did not want to risk being shut in doors, potentially at the mercy of police raids, or unable to access public health care if they got sick, he said. 

Mozambicans working in South Africa have to return home once a year to renew their work papers. The South African government has said it will not prosecute people whose papers expire during the three-week lockdown, but Cossa said that information was received after many had left. He also said that given the living conditions and concern about having money to eat, most would have gone home anyway. 

At the moment, South Africa has the most coronavirus cases on the continent by a wide margin with 1,353, according to the World Health Organization’s April 1 situation report. In total, approximately 23,000 people rushed from South Africa back to Mozambique. The people who left Gauteng province would have already traveled approximately 250 miles just to reach Ressano Garcia, the main border crossing, before moving across Mozambique to get home. 

Maider Mavi, a spokesman for Mozambique’s Health Ministry, told Foreign Policy that at the moment, the government is not sure if the 23,000 people who are back in the country are in quarantine. He said the Health Ministry set up a team at Ressano Garcia after South Africa declared its first case of the coronavirus. This week, the ministry began making phone calls to follow up on the list of 23,000 to make sure everyone who entered is now quarantining. 

“The lockdown has caused problems, but it is a necessary thing that South Africa had to do,” Mavi said. 

Last Friday, the Kenyan government introduced a dusk-to-dawn curfew, unleashing tear gas and summarily beating civilians with batons and whips. 

In Mombasa, the country’s second-biggest city and port town, police rushed a crowded commuter ferry, forcing a melee of running through tear gas and a flurry of baton slaps, about two hours before the curfew even commenced. To corral the terrified travelers, they made groups of people lie face down, close together in groups. Photos show that the police did not take the social distance mandate into consideration as they forced them into clumps. 

Human Rights Watch in Kenya said the use of force could impair the government’s ability to slow the spread of the disease. “The authorities should ensure police respect the law and avoid abusive conduct while enforcing the curfew. Otherwise, excess use of force could undermine [the] government’s ability to win popular support and cooperation in an effort to control the spread of the virus,” a recent Human Rights Watch report argued. 

The Kenyan curfew also caused a backlog of traffic, and people trying to get home from city centers ended up sleeping side by side outside, leaning against building walls or on grassy roundabouts.

“Clearly by limiting movement and thus interaction, a curfew can help slow down the virus. However, it is unclear what data, if any, the government used to determine this was the most effective means to do so or to support its claim that the virus was mostly spread during the evenings and at night,” said Patrick Gathara, a Kenyan commentator and analyst.

Neither a National Police Service spokesperson nor a government spokesperson responded to phone calls and messages from Foreign Policy

Beyond internal national lockdowns and curfews, cross-continent borders and airspaces are largely shuttered, not including the movement of food, cargo, and humanitarian relief. Even though they are treated as special cases in some areas, aid organizations have expressed concerns that they won’t be able to get food and supplies, given the uneven regulations between countries, or that the extra paperwork required could cause delay.

In South Sudan, for example, where rocky, unpaved roads and insecurity force the movement of almost all relief goods to go by air, with the capital airport closed, humanitarian organizations are concerned about getting protective equipment into the country. 

CARE USA’s Naylor-Ngugi said that in some places on the continent, mitigation measures like distributing double food rations have been proposed so that if supply chains collapse there will be enough to tide families over for a few weeks. 

There’s also concern that if there are delays in delivering supplies, especially food, that cuts could then catalyze movement, potentially spreading the disease.

Refugee populations are especially vulnerable in this case. With approximately 1.5 million, Uganda hosts the largest refugee population in Africa. The World Food Program (WFP) says the outbreak is coinciding with a 30 percent ration cut among refugees beginning in April as a result of a $137 million funding shortfall and that excess movement could happen soon in the East African country. 

“While understandably meant to stem the spread of the highly contagious and deadly COVID-19, the countrywide restrictions on movement imposed by the government unfortunately present unintended consequences: They mean that refugees in Uganda will be constrained in farming, working, or doing business to try to fill the food gap as a result of the food cuts and will therefore be at greater risk of both malnutrition and the COVID-19,” said El-Khidir Daloum, WFP’s Uganda country director.

Foreign Policy spoke to a “very irritated” health practitioner in Zimbabwe who requested to remain anonymous.

“We snatched the most suppressive solution we could find without training the military, police, or anyone else,” the practitioner said, pointing out that the police in Zimbabwe could even turn on the state if not provided with protective clothing. “This is turning into a chaotic situation.”

Amanda Sperber is a journalist based in Nairobi and Mogadishu. Twitter: @hysperbole

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