Deprose Muchena is the Director of Amnesty International’s East and Southern Africa Regional Office
In our homes, streets, public places, radio stations, newspapers and international television news channels, everybody is talking about: COVID-19. Maintaining reasonable physical distance and practising good personal hygiene, such as regularly washing hands and avoiding touching one’s face, are some of the methods advised by governments to help reduce transmission. Governments around the world have responded to COVID-19 by imposing a raft of measures aimed at containing the spread of COVID-19, including restricting freedom of movement, by imposing social distancing in public settings such as shopping malls, trains and churches.
In East and Southern Africa, some governments, such as Rwanda, South Africa, Uganda and Kenya, have imposed unprecedented measures such as national “lockdowns”, which include school closures, restricted movement of people, and restricted operating times or closures for pubs and restaurants. The number of people who can gather at churches, funerals and other public spaces has also been curtailed. In some countries such as South Africa, these measures will be enforced by the security forces who will be patrolling the streets.
COVID-19 has now been confirmed in more than 195 countries and territories around the world according to the World Health Organization. Neither rich nor poor have been spared. The death toll, and number of people testing positive for the virus, is rising every day. In Africa, the number of those who are testing positive is rising every day and the disease was declared a national disaster in countries like South Africa and Zimbabwe after it became clear that it would have devastating consequences for poor and marginalized people, especially in high density areas with insufficient water, sanitation and health care infrastructure.
So far, South Africa has recorded the highest number of confirmed cases at over 900 (at the time of writing) but there have been no reported deaths and early indications are that some patients are recovering. However, in Zimbabwe, COVID-19 has claimed its first victim – a prominent young broadcaster, Zororo Makamba, who succumbed to the disease after he was allegedly isolated at Wilkins Hospital in Harare, the government’s designated health facility for COVID-19, without being offered treatment earlier this week. Reports indicate the health facility lacks intensive care equipment, including ventilators and personal protective equipment for health workers. In the context of a spreading epidemic, states have an obligation to ensure that preventive care, goods, services and information are available and accessible to all persons.
Also in Zimbabwe, there were reports of a patient who was kept in isolation for days at Thorngrove Hospital in Bulawayo last week, without being tested apparently due to the lack of the necessary medical diagnostic kits.
In Angola, about 280 economy class passengers disembarking a flight from Portugal on 22 March were taken to a forced quarantine site about 50 kilometres from the airport in Luanda. Reports indicated that another 20 passengers traveling in first class were taken to a local hotel for quarantine. According to reports, passengers were not informed where they were being taken, with men and women being separated.
In Madagascar, which as of 26 March had 23 confirmed COVID-19 cases, thousands of people are detained in deplorable prison conditions, with many yet to be tried. There is a disaster waiting to happen if COVID-19 finds its way in. For example, in 2018 Amnesty has documented how the over-use of pre-trail detention has resulted in severely overcrowded prisons, with many people detained for petty offences such as stealing a chicken, which means that preventative steps such as washing hands and observing social distancing are going to impossible to adhere to. Malagasy authorities should consider releasing some pre-trial detainees to mitigate the likely disastrous impact of COVID-19 – especially to elderly or already sick inmates who do not pose a risk to society. Some of these inmates could be considered for release.
The African Commission on Human and People’s rights has already raised its concerns about the spread of the pandemic across the continent, including the limited testing capacity in most states. It also noted its worry that the disease will have distressing consequences on people at risk including, among others, older people, homeless and people living in inadequate housing such as informal settlements, refugees and people with weak immune systems due to underlying health conditions.
While some countries have adopted securitization measures to combat the spread of the virus, including social distancing through confining people to their homes, in the context of a spreading epidemic, states have an obligation to ensure that preventive care, goods, services and information are available and accessible to all persons. This includes the dissemination of accessible, accurate and evidence-based information about how people can protect themselves, as well as ensuring that any goods necessary to ensure prevention are available and affordable for all persons.
Countries that are unable to meet the demand must appeal to the international community for help. At this time, international cooperation and solidarity is crucial. All countries that can respond should do so as swiftly as possible. The response must itself be rights-respecting and should take account of long-term as well as immediate needs, keeping in mind the particular needs of specific, marginalized groups.