How Africa locked down civic rights to battle the Covid-19 pandemic

Tuesday November 01 2022
A police officer chases street vendors in Kampala, Uganda

A police officer chases street vendors in Kampala, Uganda on March 26, 2020 after people were directed to stay home to curb the spread of Covid-19. PHOTO | FILE | AFP


On March 27, 2020, Kenya’s police teargassed a crowd jostling for the ferry in Mombasa. They proceeded to round up people and beat them up for being outside during a nationwide curfew.

Except this incident happened two hours before curfew time imposed by then President Uhuru Kenyatta at the height of the coronavirus pandemic.

This and other incidents of police brutality have been informing discussions in Banjul in the Gambia, where the 73rd Session of the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights (ACHPR) is being held.

Human rights campaigners say Covid-19 restrictions on movement normalised police brutality and shrunk civic spaces, and this should never have been the case; governments should have implemented lockdowns better.

They also note that coups and terrorism are further hurting protection of human rights and restricting civic spaces.

“It looks justified when the government says you cannot meet because there is a risk of spreading disease, and you look odd trying to challenge that. But these restrictions also took away our power to challenge the oppression that exists in our region,” said George Kegoro, executive director of the Open Society Initiative for Eastern Africa, an arm of the Open Society Foundations.


“Anytime there is a coup, human rights are hurt and the civic spaces are restricted,” added Remy Ngoy Lumbu, ACHPR chair said Lumbu.

Restricted normal lives

Covid-19, Kegoro noted, restricted people’s normal lives and limited public spaces where people met to discuss social-political problems. It also allowed oppressive regimes to stamp down dissent.

At a side event to reflect on the policy flaws of managing Covid-19, rights watchers on the continent said there has been an obvious lapse in infrastructure and policy implementation in guarding against Covid-19. They argued that most of the decisions by governments and security forces violated individual rights even as they were meant to tackle a new health crisis.

“It gave the government an additional reason to crackdown on people under reasons that allowing gatherings would spread disease. But there was insincerity where opposition activities were banned but activities on behalf of ruling groups were not affected,” Kegoro told The EastAfrican.

He was referring to Kenya’s attempts to change its constitution through the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) and Uganda’s 2021 elections. Proponents of the BBI and supporters of the ruling regime in Uganda were allowed to gather at rallies in spite of existing bans on political meetings.

Barred from gathering

“In some countries, elections went on normally and ruling parties were allowed to mobilise. But when civil society or opposition groups wanted to assemble, the rules changed and people were barred from gathering on health grounds,” said Lumbu.

In other countries, Covid-19 brought a new danger: inability to guarantee security for the people. Marcel Mani, the programmes manager at Redhac – a rights watchdog in eight countries in central Africa – says the pandemic forced countries to free people from jails to ease congestion but this made it difficult to police criminals.

“The civic spaces shrank too as restrictions came. But it gave the bad guys a chance to infiltrate without notice. The mask was a useful tool, you know, to hide faces,” Mani told The EastAfrican.

Mani says Covid-19 contributed to the raging Anglophone separatist insurgency in Cameroon as “efforts to nip the conflict in the bud were abandoned.”

Now civilians are caught up in the middle of the conflict as as government forces battle insurgents.

Vaccine inequality

Covid-19 management, however, went beyond political operations and the economic impact of losing jobs or closing businesses.

In Kenya, a controversial quarantine imposed at the start of the pandemic saw people who could not afford to pay for premium hotel rooms encamped in selected learning centres, which was a violation of local public health laws.

A joint statement issued by the NGOs Forum noted that Covid-19 also brought in inequalities, including limited access to vaccines for Africans as well as lack of access to treatment for the poor.

The pandemic worsened the divide between the poor and the rich, hurting the rights to access to adequate healthcare.

Last week, the World Health Organisation Africa office warned that Covid-19 vaccination coverage was stagnating in half of African countries. The continent is yet to reach the goal of having 70 per cent of its people vaccinated by year-end.

Dangerous gap

“The end of the Covid-19 pandemic is within sight, but as long as Africa lags far behind the rest of the world in reaching widespread protection, there is a dangerous gap which the virus can exploit to come roaring back,” said Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO regional director for Africa in a bulletin.

Rights campaigners are calling on governments to learn from the incidents and prepare for future pandemics.

“The infrastructure that has indirect effect on the management of health was not there,” Kegoro said. “To deliver public health, you realise you need roads, bridges…. Services are dependent on one another. Roads and public transport are important, just as timely information given to the public is.

“If we go into a future pandemic, we are going to invest also in trust, that when the government speaks, people can listen to what it says and comply.”

The rights watchdogs say African countries must implement pending pledges to protect civil rights.