COVID-19 In-depth Analysis

COVID-19 and the Sahel

When the first COVID-19 cases reached the African continent, early estimates painted a dim picture of the impact of the pandemic on the region. Editorialists, public figures and think tanks predicted a widespread outbreak in the face of governments and health systems lacking the capacities to counter it. On 9 March 2020, the first two cases of COVID-19 were announced in Burkina Faso, followed by Niger on 19 March and Mali on 25 March. The outlook for the Sahel was particularly pessimistic. Some predicted that in addition to the human toll, the pandemic would spark the collapse of the Sahelian states.

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Photo: Hamid Abdulsalam, UNAMID
25 August 2014. El Fasher: UNAMID's JSR Mohamed Ibn Chambas during the reception ceremony of Justice and `Equality Movement (JEM) Sudan- Dabajo faction troops to be integrated into Government of Sudan military at Sixth Infantry Division Command in El Fasher, North Darfur. Photo: Hamid Abdulsalam, UNAMID

Although the virus has reinforced the existing vulnerabilities of Sahelian states, infection rates in the Sahelian countries have remained much lower than predicted. To control the pandemic, countries instituted a series of measures including states of emergency, curfews, sanitary cordons, social distancing, the obligatory wearing of masks in public and the closure of land, air and maritime borders. Furthermore, they restricted movements within and between urban settlements, prohibited public gatherings and closed public places, including schools and places of worship.

COVID-19 cannot be effectively addressed by any single country. In the case of the Sahel, regional, international and global solidarity will be imperative to avoid a continent-wide pandemic – SRSG Chambas @UN_UNOWAS

According to the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC), infection rates in the Sahel have decreased, with only 1 900 people infected in August 2020 across the five Sahel countries – a total population of 85 million. While the low level of testing in these countries could nuance these positive figures, the low number of COVID-19-related deaths seems to confirm the trend. Among the potential explanations are the early prevention measures of governments, a youthful population, low population density and others. However, reasons for the resilience of sub-Saharan Africa to high levels of infection have yet to be fully ascertained.

While the trajectory of the pandemic is still evolving, there has already been a major impact on the political, security, economic and humanitarian dynamics in Sahel countries. COVID-19 has slowed down economic growth – in the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) region, the expected increase of 3.3% of gross domestic product (GDP) has decreased to an estimated -2.1% for 2020 – increased existing inequalities, exacerbated tensions around elections and political processes, and reduced the capacity of governments to provide basic services. The United Nations (UN) Secretary General has welcomed the initiative of the G20 to suspend the debt requirements of least-developed countries for one year, but has insisted that more support is needed and has called for efforts to encourage private creditors to join debt-relief efforts. Both ECOWAS and the African Union (AU) have called for the cancellation of all debts for African countries so as to direct state resources towards controlling the spread of the virus.

Humanitarian

As I write this, the Sahel is being hit by floods that have killed at least 75 and affected over 420 000 people. There are more than 3.5 million displaced persons throughout Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger and Chad, with Burkina Faso now hosting over one million, making it the fastest-growing humanitarian crisis in the world (see Figure 1). The upsurge in displacement had been predicted due to the increased activities of armed non-state actors. There is limited evidence that these displacements have increased due to COVID-19. However, anti-COVID-19 measures have contributed to reduced humanitarian assistance for the displaced – this was one factor that sparked the return of an estimated 25 000 Malian refugees from Burkina Faso to Mali.

It is the next generation that risks bearing the brunt of the crisis. According to UNOCHA, out of the 24 million people across the Sahel who need life-saving assistance , more than half of them are children. Almost 10 million children suffer from acute malnutrition, including 3 million affected by its most severe form. Over 11 500 schools have been closed due to insecurity across the Sahel, affecting more than 2.2 million children. With COVID-19, 71 million children were temporarily out of school. I should note that cautious steps are now being taken as the new school year begins.

Those who are in the most acute need are oftentimes the most difficult to access for national and international actors, as armed groups operating in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso have been increasingly targeting humanitarian actors. The UN Secretary General has warned that jihadist groups in the Sahel are exploiting the pandemic to step up attacks and challenge state authority throughout the region. While there has not been an immediate spike in attacks, the consequences of the pandemic augment the vulnerability of populations in conflict-affected areas, such as the Liptako-Gourma and Lake Chad regions.

Increasing inequalities

Women are on the frontline of risking exposure to COVID-19. According to the UN Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA), the majority of nurses in Africa are women, , while on the economic side, women are responsible for 75% of cross-border trade across the continent. Worldwide domestic violence against women has increased during the pandemic, according to UN Women. A study of the non-governmental organisation (NGO) Justice and Dignity for the Women of the Sahel has found that in the five Sahelian countries, domestic violence against women has increased by 12% during the pandemic. Also, as a result of the pandemic, more girls than boys across the African continent have dropped out of school. The pandemic reinforces existing inequalities and compromises development gains. Those who are already in fragile situations can be obligated to adopt “negative resilience” strategies to survive, selling off necessary assets, including agricultural tools and work animals and over-farming without allowing fallow time. In addition, I am concerned that some of our adaptive strategies, such as working from home, risk excluding those who do not have the personal means (including computers and internet connections) to do so. The modern technologies that have enabled governments and international partners to ensure business continuity can also marginalise those populations who are most impacted by the pandemic, and further the ‘digital divide’.1

Security

Independently of COVID-19, the security situation has continued to deteriorate in the Sahel, with casualties from violence largely outnumbering COVID-19-related deaths. Halfway through 2020, reported fatalities have reached 90% of 2019’s annual tally (see Figure 2). In effect, March 2020 marked the deadliest month since 2011, which led some to attribute a causal link between an increase in attacks and COVID-19. However, reported fatalities have subsequently fallen sharply to their lowest monthly level in two years. There were concerns that armed groups would increase their attacks, and that regional and international forces would scale back their operations due to the pandemic. Islamic State and Al-Qaeda affiliates have adopted the narrative that the ‘pandemic is punishment for apostate regimes’, and have attempted to capitalise on popular frustrations due to the restrictive measures. There is no sign that this has led to an increase in recruitment among their ranks. In addition, counterterrorism efforts in the Sahel have intensified rather than scaled back due to COVID-19.

Governance

During the first months of the pandemic, one of the fundamental challenges was the continuity of government services. In Burkina Faso, this was further aggravated by the fear sparked by infections at high levels of government. The first recorded COVID-19 fatality in sub-saharan Africa was, Rose Marie Compoaré, a member of the Burkinabe National Assembly, who died on 18 March as a result of COVID-19. Subsequently, five government ministers were diagnosed with COVID-19, which effectively put a large part of the country’s leadership in self-isolation and quarantine. The implementation of recommendations designed to prevent transmission faced substantial delays, thus accelerating the spread.

As Niger and Burkina Faso prepare to go to elections, there are concerns that restrictions enacted to fight the pandemic, combined with state of emergency and counterterrorist operations, could result in the restrictions of civil liberties. In both countries, governments have had to find a balance between their responsibility to ensure public health and to create the space for a meaningful participation of the public in governance matters.

Elections

Legislative and presidential elections will be held in Burkina Faso on 22 November and in Niger on 27 December. With both countries already on very tight electoral calendars, COVID-19 restrictive measures required a temporary freeze in registration, the training of electoral agents and other preparatory activities. However, both Niger and Burkina Faso have shown commitment to respecting the electoral calendar, putting in place health protocols (ie: hand sanitizer and social distancing at polling stations)and overcoming difficulties in voter registration, despite some calls for a postponement of the polls.

COVID-19 is one factor among many that will continue to impact on pre-electoral activities, polling and post-electoral dispensations. The example of Mali’s legislative elections, held during COVID-19 restrictions in March and April, is instructive in this regard. Turnout was historically low, largely influenced by the population’s fear of the pandemic, rather than by security fears. This can be seen with the rates of participation in Gao (64%) and Tombouctou (61%) in relation to Bamako (13%). The population’s fear was further reinforced when four deputies tested positive for the virus between the two electoral rounds, and two of them dying (Habib Sofara and Belco Bah). The elected deputies were then criticised for not having a ‘truly popular’ mandate. Furthermore, the government was accused by the opposition of ‘instrumentalising the pandemic’ with restrictions on campaigning and using the low voter turnout to their advantage.

As Niger and Burkina Faso approach their legislative and presidential elections, a spike in COVID-19 cases could dissuade people from casting their votes and tarnish the integrity of the process.

Livelihoods

The livelihoods of populations of the Sahel are constantly threatened by epidemiological, climatic, political and economic shifts. And more often than not, national and global responses are either insufficient or divorced from local realities. Even in the ECOWAS region, the impact of the pandemic has been different across countries. The West African Health Organisation (WAHO) noted that lockdown measures need to respond to realities in countries, as agreed upon by ECOWAS ministers of health, as there cannot be a one-size-fits-all solution.

While the pandemic has added another layer to the complex crisis that is affecting the countries of the Sahel, it has also brought to the forefront the absolute necessity to rise above country-specific interventions. Evidently, it is necessary to enhance the capacity of local communities in each Sahel country, enabling them to respond with increased levels of efficiency. However, the challenges are global; hence, long-term solutions will not be found solely at the local level. The historic proportions of this pandemic provide ample evidence that the difficulties associated with COVID-19 cannot be effectively addressed by any single country. In the case of the Sahel, regional, international and global solidarity will be imperative to avoid a continent-wide pandemic.

Mohamed Ibn Chambas is Special Representative of the Secretary General for West Africa and the Sahel.

Endnote

  1. The digital divide is defined as the gap that exists between individuals who have access to modern information and communication technology and those who lack access.

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