Food being prepared for prisoners, Ghana, September 2011. In Ghana, inmates often have to rely on family members for additional food, medicines and other necessities. Besides being overcrowded, prisons in Ghana are under-resourced and antiquated. As a result, medical and sanitary facilities are poor and many prisoners sleep on the floor because of lack of beds. Most prisoners rely on family members and outside organizations for additional food, medicines and other necessities. Many detainees have been in prison for several years while they await trial because they are unable to secure bail or have access to legal counsel.

The challenges and opportunities for Africa: COVID-19 and human rights

By Adotei Akwei

While there is no crystal ball to show what the exact impact of COVID19 will on sub-Saharan Africa, there is enough information to identify critical stress points and underlying vulnerabilities that the pandemic will exacerbate and which will have to be considered in any initiatives to respond to the crisis.

As of the middle of April, Africa had 25,000 confirmed cases and 1200 deaths. But the actual numbers are expected to be worse due to a lack of capacity to conduct tests.

COVID-19 Exacerbates Familiar Challenges on the Continent

Africa enters the COVID19 period with some familiar challenges that the crisis will worsen. While the situation varies by country, the majority of African countries have understaffed and underfunded healthcare systems as a result of decades of being neglected by African governments. One statistic that underscores the scale of the challenge is that countries sub Saharan Africa have .2 physicians for every 1,000 people while OECD countries have 2.9 for every 1,000 persons.

These figures do not take into account the ticking crisis of camps and settlements hosting Africa’s displaced persons or its prisons. According to UNHCR, Africa had 24,213,204 displaced persons including refugees, refugee-like, returned refugees, IDPs, returned IDPs, asylum seekers, stateless, others of concern. These people live in overcrowded conditions, have minimal access to healthcare and are dependent on assistance from governments that are being overwhelmed by the COVID19 crisis.

Africa’s economic progress, which has not seen a recession in 25 years, is about to decimated by the economic toll of the regional and global slowdown. The continent’s economic growth is expected to be halved as income from exports drops, foreign investment dries up and government revenue are reduced. Social distancing policies will hit the informal sector hardest as a result of the impact on economic activity.

Other areas of critical concern will be COVID19’s impact on Africa’s conflicts. Somalia, Chad, the Central African Republic, Mali, Burkina Faso, South Sudan, Northeastern Nigeria and Cameroon are partly destabilized by armed conflicts that will not stop or go away and betting that the armed groups involved in the insurgencies will heed the UN Secretary General António Guterres’ call for a universal ceasefire seems too optimistic. The question will be how much the capacity of government forces in these conflict zones is degraded and what military partners such as the United States and the European Union, already are consumed with rebuilding their own economies will be able or willing to provide.

Human Rights Also at Risk

Basic human rights will also be further at risk with the COVID19 crisis. The ability of the security forces to protect and maintain the rule of law in a manner that adheres to international and regional standards is doubtful. Police and military have been videotaped beating individuals for violating shelter in place restrictions. Persons arbitrarily detained now face an even higher risk of indefinite detention with courts being closed and also face increased risk of exposure to COVID17 due to chronic overcrowding of prisons across the continent.

The unacknowledged area of concern will be protecting and promoting access to information. Information about how to best avoid catching the virus. Information about where resources and support to survive having the virus are can acquired could now be the difference between life and death. At the same time, information about what governments are doing, what they are not doing and whether resources are being allocated fairly will all be essential to containing the virus.

Unfortunately, the record regarding African governments and access to information is not encouraging. While there are safeguards on access to information at the regional level, too many African governments have laws that violate or restrict access to information or ignore their regional obligations by restricting freedom of expression. Governments across the continent regularly attack seek to undermine the independent media and human rights groups and any voices found to be critical of the government.

What Can We Do?

The UN estimates that Africa could suffer up to 300,000 death as a result of the COVID19 crisis with “tens of millions” plunged back into poverty. The urgency of a robust and effective response is clear and while that response to COVID19 will require some temporary sacrifices and unsettling policies, sacrificing human rights must not have to be one of them.

As the United States responds to the COVID19 virus domestically, attention must also be paid to responding to an international crisis. We have learned at great cost that this virus does not respect borders or levels of development we are only as safe as the most vulnerable of us is.

Traditionally the United States has been the global leader in responding to humanitarian crises. We need that leadership now. We need to tell Congress and the Trump administration to anchor efforts to mobilize resources to build a sustainable global health infrastructure capable of managing the COVID19 and future pandemics in Africa. They need to ensure that US assistance for COVID19 responses reiterates working with civil society organizations as well as with governments to beat this pandemic. Finally, Washington must press its African counterparts to uphold and respect human rights especially the ability to convey and access information. We must not allow ignorance to be a death sentence.

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