Going by the current trajectory, East Africa is on course to see a huge jump in the number of Covid-19 cases over the next few weeks.
South Sudan remains the exception within the East African Community region, without a single reported case as at Friday. As the number of active cases rise, so does the intensity of measures to break the chain.
Burundi banned traffic crossing over from Rwanda and joined the rest of the region in limiting the movement of people.
Uganda, which had hitherto allowed private cars on the road as long as they carried a maximum of three passengers; on March 30 clawed back the concession, limiting movement only to personnel providing essential services. A dusk-to-dawn curfew was also imposed.
The first few days of the curfew have been chaotic, with horror stories coming out of the night. Across the region, citizens caught on the wrong side of the curfew faced the wrath of whip and trigger-happy security officers who beat them to a pulp. In Uganda and Kenya, journalists and other workers providing essential services were not spared.
In light of the current threat, curbs on personal freedoms are absolutely necessary. The choice is between suffering inconveniences for a limited time to ward off a bigger calamity, or enjoying the freedoms to death. The case is even more compelling when one considers the contradictions of East Africa’s health infrastructure.
Besides limited availability of high dependence units in hospitals, the human resources are also inadequate. The economies barely have any capacity to resist a prolonged crisis and the begging bowls are already out as finance ministers seek loans to bridge revenue shortfalls.
Yet all those reasons cannot justify the kind of brutality being meted out on citizens or the failure of the state to mitigate the negative fallout in livelihoods. Force applied to control unarmed civilians must be reasonable and proportionate.
There must also be flexibility to accommodate the unforeseen, such as getting the sick to hospitals, without the need for official sanction.
The authority of the State to withdraw personal liberty is only justifiable where the same State proactively moves to insulate the vulnerable from the undesirable impact of its actions.
So far, with a few exceptions, the interventions have been macro, aiming to preserve the wider economy. While a healthy economy offers the best hope for post crisis recovery, there is also a need to address the immediate need for Ugali and Sukumawiki for the common man. The majority of urban residents don’t have any reserves to fall back on and their nutritional and energy needs will have to be addressed.
Governments also need to consider the possibility that the lockdowns are going to be prolonged. Should that happen, the demands on the State are going to multiply and desperate sections of the population will try to break whatever controls the State imposes.
The temptation to lash back with even more violence will be high. But all that would be unnecessary if social modelling is done early to determine and address the most pressing needs of borderline groups.