News & Media / COVID-19 in Africa: Tensions between government responses and civil liberties

COVID-19 in Africa: Tensions between government responses and civil liberties

09 September, 2020

COVID-19 has required unprecedented actions from governments to safeguard the rights to life and health. While some countries opted for a “soft” approach to COVID-19, a number of African countries took a more “strict” approach which meant the introduction of stringent lockdowns and state of emergencies (SOE), I believe mainly due to our weak health systems coupled with economic concerns. 

The SOE waivers specific regulations, widens the head of state powers beyond the ideal permissive scope and authorises additional resources. Delving deeper, the SOE also restricts some of our key democratic rights. While these rights maybe restricted for reasons of national emergency, public health or “common good”, restrictions on these rights should be directed towards a legitimate objective and based on scientific evidence and neither arbitrary nor discriminatory in application. 

The recently published Mo Ibrahim Foundation NGN Survey, illustrates that most of the respondents express their belief that the pandemic provides the means to limit civil society participation and freedom of assembly and consider it has an impact on human rights and civil liberties. Of the 105 respondents , 70 [66.7%] agree that COVID-19 threatens human rights and liberties across the 35 countries surveyed. 

There are numerous reports of police overstepping their bounds. In April, a Reuters article reported that Nigerian law enforcement officers killed 18 people compared to the 12 lost to COVID-19 while enforcing the 14 day lockdown restrictions. However, applying firmness in enforcing restrictions should not supersede statutory security responsibilities. 

The shutdown of the internet in Ethiopia also restricted millions of people from accessing crucial information through digital communications that is needed to curb the spread of the virus. During the COVID-19 pandemic, factual and real-time information on the disease must reach everyone. As highlighted by the Human Rights Watch, blocking the flow of information “during a health crisis violates multiple rights and can cost lives”, it is a restriction that is inept and parallel to supposed public health measures.  

There has been a huge outcry by healthcare workers across several African countries, mainly relating to poor working conditions and inadequate personal protective equipment (PPE) that prevent them to effectively do their work. A major snag is that some cannot protest as the SOE regime prevents them from doing so. Algeria, Burkina Faso and Uganda are some of those that have placed an absolute prohibition on the right to peaceful assembly. Freedom of assembly is essential to our democracy as protests are a vital tool available to the public to push for accountability of government and social change. 

Outside the continent, new tools and technologies for organising protests are growing against government countermeasures. Messaging apps like Telegram have been utilised to coordinate efforts in creative and disruptive ways. However, in the case of Africa, where only 40% of the population has access to the internet; exploring these new technologies will definitely not be as effective. Bearing in mind the disenfranchised populations, some form of physical gathering (with stringent measures in place) to express intentions and concerns should be allowed. 

It is confounding how quickly civil liberties have been set aside with governments responding to the pandemic. Many checks and balances have been pushed aside. New orders emerge every day and the rule of law is playing catch up, a traditionally conspicuous feature of African politics and civil culture. The African Commission on Human and People’s Rights (ACHPR) has appealed to some countries to uphold human rights in their responses to COVID-19.

The eminent fear is that, the decline of human rights will continue even beyond the  COVID-19 pandemic. There needs to be trust between the state and citizens as different measures and regulations are adopted, but the key things needed for this are transparency and accountability. Regional organisations such as the African Union Peace and Security Council and civil society must be heedful and prevent the receding of rights to ensure social and political stability during and post COVID-19.

There is a threat of overreaching when governments are allowed to do what is necessary to keep us safe. How far should governments go? Are civil liberties a necessary sacrifice in the fight against COVID-19? There is definitely a need to adopt a human rights approach in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.

COVID-19 has revealed a perennial tension between public health, human rights and civil liberties but as Bayer once held when the same tensions arose during the HIV/AIDS epidemic, “Good public health respects civil liberties and anything that advances human rights and civil liberties would advance public health.” 

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