Covid-19 as an emergency human rights issue in Southern Africa

By Deprose Muchena

Governments around the world have responded to the Covid-19 menace by imposing a raft of measures aimed at containing the spread of the disease, including restricting freedom of movement and ordering social distancing in public places like shopping malls, trains and churches.

In eastern and southern Africa, some governments, such as Rwanda, South Africa, Uganda,Zimbabwe and Kenya, have imposed 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 been curtailed. In some places, such as South Africa, these measures will be enforced by the security forces patrolling the streets.

Covid-19 is confirmed in more than 195 countries and territories around the world, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). Neither rich nor poor have been spared. The death toll, and the number of people testing positive for the virus, rises every day.

The situation has been declared a national disaster in countries like South Africa and Zimbabwe — after it became clear it would have devastating consequences for poor and marginalised people, especially in high density areas with insufficient water, sanitation and healthcare infrastructure.

So far, South Africa has recorded the highest number of confirmed cases at more than 1,000. There have been two reported deaths, but there are early indications that some patients are recovering.

In Zimbabwe, Covid-19 has claimed its first victim, a prominent young broadcaster, Zororo Makamba, who succumbed to the disease after being allegedly isolated at Wilkins Hospital in Harare — the government’s designated health facility for Covid-19 — without being offered treatment earlier last 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 were 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 documented how the overuse of pretrial detention had resulted in severely overcrowded prisons, with many people detained for petty offences such as stealing a chicken, which means preventative steps such as washing hands and observing social distancing are going to be 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 securitisation 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 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, marginalised groups.

Deprose Muchena is director of Amnesty International’s East and Southern Africa Regional Office.