What began as a health crisis became very much a socio-economic and political crisis for many African countries as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. While the virus itself had little effect on the peoples of Africa, the immediate strategies to prevent the spread of the virus had devastating consequences for the lives and livelihoods of populations. This article reflects on the trends that exacerbated the threats to peace and security in African countries as a result of the pandemic, and the strategies undertaken by African governments to mitigate the effects of the pandemic.
Emerging Peace and Security Threats in Africa
When the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the spread of the coronavirus a world pandemic on 11 March 2020, it was inevitable that many African governments would follow their global counterparts and institute national lockdowns in their respective countries. These lockdowns entailed restrictions of movement, curfews, and the closure of businesses and markets, as well as some countries placing a ban on the sale of tobacco and alcohol. The informal sector consisting of street vendors and cab drivers, to name but a few, were the hardest hit, as in many African countries these remain the main source of employment, accounting for 80 per cent of jobs, and a contributing factor in the countries’ economies.1 These lockdowns therefore created harsh living conditions for the informal sector, as they threatened the household incomes of many people living in vulnerable situations. The lockdowns caused a negative ripple effect that included, but was not limited to, the following:
Protest actions – Two months into the lockdowns, Guinea was one of the first countries to experience violent protests against lockdown restrictions. This resulted in a high death toll when motorcycle taxi drivers clashed with security forces. In June 2020, violent protests, including clashes with security forces, erupted in Senegal’s capital, Dakar, against a nationwide dusk-to-dawn curfew that was imposed three months after a lockdown was mandated. And in the holy city of Touba, government property was vandalised by crowds of people who were against the curfews. Political protests also ensued. For instance, in Mali, thousands of people demanded the resignation of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita for the way in which he had handled the multiple crises in the country, which were exacerbated by the pandemic. In Ethiopia, protests turned violent following the death of a popular singer, Hachalu Hundessa, who was known for his political views. “Hundessa’s killing increased already existing tensions, which further increased after the government postponed the national election due to the COVID-19 pandemic.”2. These protest encounters between citizens and state institutions further fragmented the fragile relationships between these two entities, increasing political tensions and social discord.
Crime-related activities – In South Africa, a ban on the sale of alcohol and cigarettes was instituted. This decision largely stemmed from concerns about the risk that these substances could contribute to the spread of the virus and overwhelm the health sector. The ban on the sale of alcohol and tobacco not only resulted in a significant loss for the South African economy but also created an illicit trade in which these items were sold both internally and across borders, and the demand for cigarettes further increased smuggling activities across borders. “On 18 June, it was reported that ZAR1.3 million worth of cigarettes was confiscated at the Farazella border post between South Africa and Mozambique. And on 2 July, it was reported that ZAR1.4 million worth of cigarettes was confiscated at the Beit Bridge port of entry between South Africa and Zimbabwe.”3. Other criminal activities included human trafficking and illegal migration, as well as drug trafficking, all of which became lucrative businesses from the start of the pandemic. During the course of 2020, it was reported that approximately 2,800 people migrated illegally from North Africa to Europe. In March 2020, Mozambican authorities apprehended a shipping container at its border with Malawi, which was destined for South Africa. The container held 78 illegal Ethiopian migrants, 64 of whom had died. Drug trafficking also increased during the lockdown. Cocaine worth US$1.8 million was seized by police in South Africa. There was also a demand for chloroquine when it was reported that doctors would be “allowed to use chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine in people who were in the hospital with COVID-19”4. This drug is normally used to treat malaria. Criminal networks in Senegal “developed a parallel economy by trafficking and selling a substandard version of chloroquine”.5.
Gender-based violence (GBV) – Violence against women and girls intensified during the pandemic. At the onset of the lockdowns, there were reports globally on the domestic violence to which women and girls were exposed. South Africa recorded the highest number of cases of GBV during the pandemic, with 2,300 calls received in the first week of the lockdown6. According to Amnesty International, in the case of Zimbabwe, there were 764 cases of gender-based violence in the first 11 days of the national lockdown. By 13 June 2020, the number was 2,768.7
In spite of the lockdowns and the restrictions that followed, what was unique to the continent was the resilience of the people against the virus. South Africa was the only African country to show a high rate of infection. The low rate of infection generally can be attributed to various factors, including a large population of young people, with the virus prone to have a greater effect on the elderly early in the pandemic; the lack of care facilities, as the elderly reside with relatives, and are therefore not as exposed to the virus; and vaccines administered for other communicable diseases provided a level of protection to most African populations. It should also be acknowledged that a lack of testing kits to identify cases of the virus also contributed to low infection rates. In light of these factors and the negative trends that resulted, African governments had to consider strategies that focused on countering the effects of the lockdowns more than the spread of the virus itself.
Strategic efforts to address the Pandemic
At the onset of the pandemic, the African Union (AU) together with the Africa Centre for Disease Control (CDC) established the COVID-19 Response Fund, with the aim of centralising and providing support to the most vulnerable and impoverished countries. This fund was largely used to supply medication to countries that were in dire need. The AU and CDC also developed the “African Joint Continental Strategy for COVID-19 Outbreak”, which presents a strategy for the regional governing authorities and member states to undertake.
In January 2021, when media reports disclosed that some African countries were paying considerably more for vaccines than their European counterparts, this opened up the debate on vaccine equity in the face of a global health crisis.8 African countries thereafter had to look inward for support. Aspen Pharmacare, based in South Africa, commenced with the manufacturing of Johnson and Johnson vaccines to provide to the AU and other countries, although distribution was outside its control. However, by December 2021, Aspen Pharmacare was licensed to produce the vaccine for commercial purposes, making it “the first African company to have the right for distribution of a COVID-19 vaccine”.9 In addition to this, on 19 January 2022, a new vaccine manufacturing facility opened in Cape Town, South Africa. At the opening of the facility, President Cyril Ramaphosa stated that “the pandemic has revealed the huge disparities that exist within and between countries in access to quality healthcare, medicines, diagnostics and vaccines. Africa is responding to COVID-19 with a depth of scientific knowledge, expertise and capacity, to make its own vaccines.” The efforts of these two facilities will be a significant response mechanism to the pandemic and the subsequent mutations that develop. Having its own facilities will increase accessibility to vaccines at an expedient rate, not just for the current coronavirus but for any other health crises the continent may face in the future.
The progress in vaccine development, manufacturing and distribution was well timed with the ratification of the Africa Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA). It is the largest free trade area in the world, both by area and by the number of countries. The AfCFTA comprises 55 countries, with a population of 1.3 billion and combined GDP of about $3.4 trillion.10 The AfCFTA is expected to facilitate the reforms necessary for long-term economic growth in African countries.
As at January 2022, 77 million people in Africa have been vaccinated, accounting for only 6 per cent of the continent’s population. In comparison, however, over 70 per cent of high-income countries have vaccinated more than 40 per cent of their populations.11 The concern with the low levels of vaccination in Africa increases the risk of new variants. There remains a hope that the increase in accessibility to vaccines will counter this situation. However, vaccine hesitancy also remains a challenge amongst populations, and vaccine advocacy will need to be included as a strategy for state institutions to consider.
About the Author
Marisha Ramdeen is the Coordinator: Programmes at the African Centre for the Constructive Resolution of Disputes (ACCORD). She works in the field of peace and security, specifically mediation. Her publications focus on Eswatini and the peace and security trends in Africa.