A video was recently circulated showing people in overcrowded slums in Lagos, Nigeria resisting lockdown. In the video, people expressed their dissatisfaction with the lockdown, citing their inability to meet their food and energy needs as a major concern.
In Kenya, commuters at a ferry received a bout of tear gas as the police tried to disperse a crowd of ferry commuters in Mombasa trying to escape the impending curfew the next day. We should expect to see more of these events in the coming weeks as enforcement of stay-at-home orders becomes challenging. The reasons are not far-fetched.
On any hot afternoon, driving through the streets of Nairobi, Johannesburg, or Lagos, you experience the hustle of millions of Africans. Sun-darkened skins hawking their wares to passengers in traffic, trying to earn their elusive ‘daily bread.’ Daily toil on family farms that engage more than half of the population in rural Africa and informal menial service providers such as ‘vulcanizers’, auto-mechanics, and roadside stall traders all dominate the economic life of millions of African families.
These resilient families and their almost endless struggles to survive and attempts to climb out of poverty just got the ‘joker’ of their lives: stay at home to contain the spread of COVID-19.
What lockdowns would mean for millions across Africa
Africa currently has the largest number of people living in extreme poverty in the world today at almost 440 million — and an average of 12 people fall into poverty every hour. More than 85% of African workers are in the informal sector, compared to 18% in developed countries. The bulk of these workers earn little wages everyday — suggesting that they would barely stock up under a lockdown. They simply cannot afford to stay home to meet their daily needs.
There is also concern over limited access to public goods like electricity and water. More than a quarter of the population spends over 30 minutes per trip to collect water every day. Over 660 million people, or nearly two-thirds of the population, in sub-Saharan Africa lack access to energy. For people who lack access to grid electricity, they have to rely on petroleum products or other sources for their energy needs. This means people will constantly have to go out in search of food, water, and fuel — increasing the likelihood of them contracting and spreading the virus as they commute and interact as part of their everyday lives.
It is worse for millions of slum dwellers that traverse the fringes of African cities. Social distancing is simply a luxury they can’t afford. With no bathrooms or toilets in most of their homes, these people often rely on public toilets (or open defecation) and communal taps as their only water source.
It will be increasingly hard to get these people to comply with a lockdown. This is particularly worrying in light of evidence that patients shed COVID-19 through feces, raising the risk of transmission in public toilets and places where there is still open defecation.
The needed support
Given these daunting conditions, we should expect to see more resistance and social tensions across Africa — unless governments and global partners, including the private sector heavyweights, provide the needed care, including food supply to such vulnerable populations during a lockdown.
Given the heavy disinformation and the notion that COVID-19 is imported by elites who travelled abroad, a clash of classes may result, increasing distrust of government and the elites who are perceived to be imposing the lockdown. The merits of the lockdown being the most efficient way to halt or diminish the spread of the virus and infections hold little appeal to a hungry people.
Given the forceful approach that African countries are taking to enforce the lockdowns, people are more likely to abide by the rules, for now. This has its limits and the backlash on human rights abuses may hamper that process or lead to outright rebellion should the limits of the vulnerable be tested or if the lockdowns persist for longer.
This is the time for a global partnership to support Afrocentric solutions that work for those most in need. This must include mass testing within a short time, mobilizing palliative care for the vulnerable groups, and supporting livelihoods when populations cannot earn a living. All these measures require huge resources and the world must come behind these to avoid any mass social unrest resulting from lockdowns that could worsen the already volatile situation containing a global pandemic.
None of us are safe until all of us are safe.