The impact of COVID-19 on human and peoples’ rights in Africa

Photo: REUTERS/Andres Martinez Casares
Residents gather outside a hotel designated as a quarantine facility for the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Port-au-Prince, Haiti March 12, 2020. Picture taken March 12, 2020. Photo: REUTERS/Andres Martinez Casares

The COVID-19 pandemic, as a biomedical public health issue, poses a grave threat to health and life. It is most infectious. It causes serious illness. It is also deadly. With no vaccine yet to treat it, COVID-19 continues to pose a serious threat to the rights to health and life of people. Indeed, the governance and socio-economic fallout from COVID19 poses even more serious threat to large number of human and peoples’ rights. How we respond to COVID-19 and its impacts on the basis of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights could prove to be the litmus test for mitigating the grave consequences to the political freedoms and socio-economic rights of people on the continent.

The fact that COVID-19 is highly infectious and deadly does not alone pose a threat to health and life. What has made COVID-19 vicious are the conditions of vulnerability affecting the majority of people on our continent – poor health systems, absence of social protection, structural inequalities and pervasive poverty.

How we respond to COVID-19 & its impacts could prove to be the litmus test for averting the threat to political freedoms and socio-economic rights @SolomonADersso

It was on account of this recognition that the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) – the premier human rights body of the African Union (AU) – was among the very first AU bodies to ring the alarm bell by issuing a statement on 28 February. This statement reminded States Parties to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) of their obligations to take proactive measures to safeguard the public from the threat COVID-19 poses to health, personal safety and life.

Masses of people on our continent lack access to basic healthcare services. Millions live in highly congested spaces. They live a life stripped of dignity with no (or limited) access to water, sanitation, education and decent housing. The vast majority of people on our continent – disproportionally women – depend on the informal economy, as small traders of goods and services or as daily labourers.

In recognition of this dire state of affairs, the ACHPR statement of 28 February placed emphasis on preventive public health measures including the provision of access to water, sanitisation, access to information, community participation and compliance with human rights. It has become clear since the onset of COVID-19 that we need to protect human rights more in times of emergency than in normal times, hence the emphasis on respect for human rights while responding to the pandemic.

As statements that States Parties to the African Charter, National Human Rights Institutions and Civil Society Organizations presented during the 66th Ordinary Session of the ACHPR held on13 July – 7 August show, for many people in the categories mentioned above, hand washing, sanitising, social distancing and self-isolation are not realistic options. For them, the possibility of getting healthcare in the event of infection is equally challenging. Many have no home in which to shelter. No regular income to avoid hunger and starvation. No food stockpiles so that they may remain confined in their homes.

COVID-19 has laid bare the failures of our economic and social policymaking, the dangerous fragilities of the structure of our economies, and the inability of the prevailing model of economic development, with its focus on gross domestic product (GDP) growth, to deliver for the well-being of the masses. It has also highlighted the weaknesses of our systems of governance, including the abusive culture of security institutions in the name of upholding law and order and the appetite of some in government to pocket public resources meant for fighting the pandemic. Indubitably, all of these issues carry serious risks for social cohesion and political stability. Instances of manifestations of challenges to social cohesion and political stability are already being witnessed in various parts of the continent, particularly in the context of political transitions.

With African states implementing COVID-19 response measures we have come to witness the emergence of a wide range of human rights issues affecting a large number of people – particularly the most vulnerable among us. People are forced to face insecurity – not only from a lack of access to conditions that would make it possible for them to protect themselves from the virus, but also from the human rights violations and abuses resulting from COVID-19 response measures and how those measures are enforced.

These issues prompted the ACHPR to issue a comprehensive statement on the Human Rights-based Effective Response to the COVID-19 pandemic, on 24 March 2020. The statement highlighted the human rights standards and principles that should be complied with, and the precautionary and mitigation measures that should accompany COVID-19 response measures. The ACHPR has received reports of people losing their lives due to excessive use of force by security forces; being unable to gain access to life-saving services, including access to healthcare; and facing hunger and starvation.

With the exacerbation of gender oppression during the pandemic, women and girls have come to feel the full weight of the structural violence of patriarchy, as they face an unprecedented spike in sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) and as their household work burden sharply increases.

Apart from the rise in acts of discrimination, xenophobia, misinformation and hate speech, Statements presented during the 66th ordinary session of the Commission show an increased concentration of power in the hands of the executive; undue restrictions on civil and political rights, including freedom of the press and media, which are essential for access to public health information; and the abuse of the pandemic emergency to target opposition leaders, journalists and human rights defenders.

These developments, together with COVID-19-related corruption, pose a risk of major reversals in the human rights and democratic governance gains that the continent has achieved over the years. The AU – and all sectors of the African public – should ensure that rights limitation measures and the spike in rights violations are not institutionalised and entrenched.

The socio-economic impact of COVID-19 and its response measures continue to result in severe deprivation of the social and economic well-being of many people across the continent. Unless urgent measures are taken, these socio-economic impacts of COVID-19 are sure to reverse major development gains in various social and economic areas of public life, including gender equality, maternal mortality and access to education, to name but a few. The youth, who account for a sizable portion of the continent’s population, now face a bleak prospect, with very limited or no socio-economic opportunities.

Cognisant of this situation, an initiative of the AU Assembly Bureau under the 2020 AU Chairperson, South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa, and the collective responsibility of the international community, myself and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, issued a joint statement on 20 May calling for global solidarity. This statement underscored the human rights necessity for economic relief measures and for ‘building back better’, based on “investing more in health, water and sanitation, social protection, employment and sustainable infrastructures to ensure that no one is left behind”. Echoing our call, the UN Secretary-General issued the African Policy Brief on the impact of COVID-19 – which, apart from calling for US$200 billion as additional support from the international community, emphasised that “recovery from the crisis must lead to more equal, inclusive and sustainable economies and societies”.

Also affecting people on the continent and people of African descent are racism and inequitable international trade relations. As countries resort to hording and protectionist measures of limiting the market sell of medical supplies relating to COVID-19, Africa has experienced restrictions in access to diagnostic test kits and therapeutics. There is concern that Africa may, once again, be last in the queue when a vaccine is developed, unless this vaccine is developed and produced on the continent.

Amidst all of this, the climate crisis continues to rage on across the world, including on our continent. Countries have been affected by severe weather events such as flooding and cyclones, and parts of Africa continue to experience the expansion of desertification, destroying livelihoods and increasing intercommunal tension over scarce resources, while a locust invasion has destroyed crops and sources of food, exposing millions of people to food insecurity and starvation.

Together, this indicates that we are at an “existential crossroads”, to quote from the last report of the UN rapporteur on poverty, Phillip Alston. As we respond to COVID-19 and plan for a post-COVID-19 order, we cannot afford to underestimate the gravity of these challenges. What we face are the defining human rights issues of this era: deepening inequalities, pervasive and expanding poverty, racism, sexism and gender oppression, the democratic governance predicament and the climate crisis.

Whether and how we respond to these issues could prove to be the litmus test of the success for ‘building back better’ and achieving a just and inclusive system of democratic governance and a human-centred paradigm of development, founded on human rights and the right to development under the ACHPR. While there is no going back to the ‘old normal’, the resilience of our people to any future shocks and the peace and stability of our societies cannot be guaranteed without our ability to achieve such a system of governance and paradigm of development. This entails that the AU brings social policy relating to the delivery of basic public goods (education, healthcare, water, sanitation, housing, etc.) to the centre of its Agenda 2063 policy debate and action, as myself and Bachelet pointed out in our joint statement, with emphasis on “investing more in health, water and sanitation, social protection, employment and sustainable infrastructures to ensure that no one is left behind”.

Solomon Dersso is Chairperson of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR).

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