In late March, most African states copied the approach taken by many countries worldwide and implemented a mass lockdown that saw schools close, curfews put in place, and people largely confined to their homes. In Sub-Saharan Africa—the world’s poorest region—these lockdowns have proven more dangerous than the virus itself.
In North America and Europe, the direct impact of enforcing lockdowns has resulted in dozens of petty arrests, some fines, and a dab of overzealous policing.
Yet, in some African states, the police brutality that has come along with enforced lockdowns has already claimed more lives than COVID-19.
In Uganda, police have shot lockdown breakers, five policemen were arrested in Rwanda on suspicion of beating up local men and raping their wives, and in Kenya, police shot dead a 13-year-old boy for playing on his balcony a few minutes after the beginning of the curfew.
Despite many Western media outlets showering the South African government with praise for its supposed “ruthlessly efficient” response to the coronavirus, videos have emerged of police firing rubber bullets on crowds, and the government’s own police complaints agency is currently investigating an incidence of a man who was beaten to death with a hammer for leaving his home to buy some beer.
The number of accounts like these could fill a small book already.
Getting up-to-date information of police brutality in Africa can be difficult, but as of mid-April, the National Human Rights Commission reported that, in Nigeria, at least 18 people have allegedly been killed by police violence during the enforcement of the lockdown. At the time of their report, only 11 Nigerians had died from COVID-19. A similar story can be found in Kenya, when in the first ten days of its dawn-to-dusk curfew, at least six people died from police violence—as many as the number killed by coronavirus.
Tragically, the deaths won’t stop there. Right now, many people are too scared to venture out of their homes to buy life-saving medicines or to seek urgent medical care. In Kenya, after going into labor during the curfew, one pregnant woman recently died along with her unborn baby because the midwife was too afraid to come to her home, and neighbors were unwilling to risk driving her to the hospital. These fears weren’t unfounded—the same week as the pregnant women died, a Kenyan motorcycle taxi driver was allegedly beaten to death by police after he broke curfew to take a laboring woman to the hospital.
Beyond the horrific brutality inflicted by law enforcement, even worse is the lockdown’s economic effect on millions of the world’s poorest people—suddenly unable to earn an income and afford the basic necessities needed to survive.
According to the World Bank, Sub-Saharan Africa has the highest number of people living in extreme poverty than any other region, with about 40 percent of the population making less than $1.90 per day. This works out to be almost 400 million people living in extreme poverty, almost 240 million of whom are already undernourished.
In the West, lockdowns are feasible, if economically destructive. Many people can work from home. For most Africans, no such luxuries exist. Over 70 percent of Africans work in the informal sector and make their living as traders, farmers, or self-employed artisans. The little money they do make is usually spent that same day, and not being able to work plunges millions of the world’s most vulnerable people into further poverty.
To make matters worse, several agencies have warned that if African countries fail to keep up their efforts in combating other deadly diseases due to the lockdowns, many more lives could be at risk. The World Health Organization, for instance has maintained that if states fail to maintain the delivery of insecticide-treated mosquito nets or keep up the supply of antimalarial medicines, approximately 770,000 Africans could die of malaria this year. That figure would be more than twice the number of malaria deaths recorded in 2018.
Whereas some African states, such as South Africa and Ghana, are beginning to slowly lift their lockdown rules, these liberalized measures are the exception. A slew of countries including Zimbabwe (despite being in the middle of a food crisis), the Republic of Congo, Uganda, and Botswana have all extended their lockdowns. Only Malawi has rejected the lockdown—its high court blocked the legislation just hours before it was meant to be enacted, out of legitimate fears that the restriction on movement could devastate the poorest people.
Going forward, African governments should remember that any logic behind implementing lockdowns in the West definitely does not apply in Africa. Differing conditions, such as a worse relationship between citizens and law enforcement, millions living in extreme poverty, and the significant threat from existing deadly diseases, means serious questions should be raised about the wisdom of African governments in merely copying the lockdown methods used in the West.
African states are clearly in a precarious position. The prevalence of COVID-19 on the continent is still fairly low, with just 33,000 cases and almost 1200 deaths as of May 6. The peak is likely still several weeks away, and tens of thousands of people could die from COVID-19. Despite this horrific prospect, African governments must think carefully about the unintended consequences of extending any lockdowns. There’s far too much at stake to do otherwise.