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Is Africa’s COVID-19 response real and realistic?

In the history of my East African country, Tanzania, if there is a day senior citizens will never forget, it is the “Black Monday”. This was on the 20th day of January 1964; when an army mutiny took place in Dar es Salaam, paralyzing the metropolis with spillovers to other military regiments in hinterland Tabora and crossing the borders to neighbouring Kenyan capital, Nairobi.  

My mind clicked back this chilling experience as my eyes scanned the Analysis/Africa News columns of national, Africa some global dailies. “Enforcement of coronavirus lockdown turns violent in parts of Africa”, read one global daily headline.  Others said: “Churches (Kenya) resort to online to deliver sermons”; “Patients flee from Hoima (Uganda) Hospital” and “Zimbabwe to start lockdown…”

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One page also carries a very moving Xinhua image from Kigali, Rwanda. A young woman stands outside a very humble mud plastered shelter with no door or window worth the name. Her hair plaited in Africa’s simplest Swahili “twende kilioni”—let’s go to the funeral – style. She is appreciating an aid packet from an official as part of relief to vulnerable families impacted by COVID-19 lockdown. 

Between her and the official, a child looking in the opposite direction, spreads out a begging hand just as a reflex action –without showing any signs of awareness about what is really taking place. Visible property around the family shelter includes a jerry can, two plastic containers, a bucket and three tin-made cooking pots…

For this lockdown, President Kagame argues he is aware that a section of the Rwandans are facing challenges especially those whose livelihoods had been interrupted “but the country cannot afford to slow down to relax yet.” 

Other revelations from Kigali say that all delinquents destined for rehabilitation centres will be subject to 14-day quarantines at a transit centre where they will be kept (held) in their own rooms. After testing those who prove positive would be referred back to health officials.


Reports from Kenya, where dusk-to-dawn COVID-19-related curfew has been imposed, say police have come under heavy criticism from twenty human rights groups for “excessive force”. Interior ministry is quoted as hitting back saying: “The curfew is meant to guard against an apparent threat to public health. Breaking it is not only irresponsible but also puts others in harm’s way.” The Law Society of Kenya says the curfew is “unconstitutional”.

Alongside the Kenya curfew and Rwanda lockdown, other East African and Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) countries that have adopted similar responses are Uganda, South Africa and Mozambique. 

Ordering a two-week lockdown, Uganda President Yoweri Museveni said he was taking this option because some people had misused earlier measures. “If people were not behaving carelessly, we wouldn’t have spread the virus… We have decided to take additional measures…”

Reports from Kampala also talk of supermarkets having to limit the number of customers being attended to at a time and food markets in towns remaining open but “observe 4 meters’ distance between sellers and buyers”. How does one manage to keep that distance? The heavens or ‘gods of the market’ know. 

From Maputo, Mozambican President Filipe Nyusi declares a 30-day state of emergency and says the decision had been sent to parliament for ratification and was “guided by the supreme interest in safeguarding public health for every Mozambican and foreigners residing in our country.”

On his part, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa says: “This (lockdown) is absolutely necessary…to save the lives of thousands of our people… Our own researchers and scientists have told us that our decision to lock down the country was a correct one. I am, therefore, once again calling on each and every South African to stay at home for the next 17 days.” 

Burundi declares it doesn’t have any special expertise for handling the COVID-19 disease but rather was living “only (by) the grace of God” – the arrival of support equipment from the Chinese government and Jack Ma Foundation notwithstanding.

Coronavirus scourge is on. No doubt about that. But, how far have response packages from some of African governments – the lockdown and social distance in particular – been functional? Why have the good intentions of the leaders crashed with the reaction or response of their people to the extent of involving the use of force? That is the question. 


In other words, looking at the situation on the ground in Africa, does the package of closing borders, placing citizens under lockdown and promoting social distancing provide the right mix for responding to the coronavirus? That is the question. For, at the end of the day, in the event of a lockdown, for example, one is on the ground touching the lives of about 250,000 people resident in the Nairobi Kibera slum, Johannesburg’s Alexandra 700,000 plus people crammed in an area of less than 5kms square, besides the upgraded Soweto Township.

One is talking of more than 800,000 residents of Mbare in Harare in the background of 90% unemployment in Zimbabwe and Kampala’s Kisenyi neighbourhood. In Maputo, one is touching 4 Congresso, 7 de Abril and Vumba residents. 

If Tanzania were to have taken a similar decision, this would translate into hardships for the slum dwellers of Tandale, Manzese, Buguruni and Charambe suburbs in Dar es Salaam, which is home to more than 10% of the national population.

The common truth about the lifestyle of these people is that of the indigenous knowledge concept of “ntungw’omurundi” – meaning my livelihood is the tibia.  They have to be able to walk for their uncertain sources of daily income and bread. Keeping them indoors is like signing a death warrant for them and their families. 

On the lower end, in these areas it is not surprising to find a family of three in a 4×4 (not four-wheel drive vehicle) metre-room. And many of these rooms double as kitchen, dining, living and bedroom. The same applies to transport facilities. So, tying hopes to promoting social distance in the African environment as a response to the coronavirus turns out to be an unsocial idea as it is impracticable.  

As far as border closures are concerned, African (in fact any) governments have to take extra care. Wholesale closure is a mistake. Important services must flow. For, even in the event of a coronavirus death, a funeral has to take place. How does this take place without people? How about the delivery of medical supplies? An appropriate way of addressing emerging challenges must be put in place. 

It is in recognition of this fact that the most recent resolve by Eastern Africa presidents forming the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) to formulate regional response strategies to contain the COVID-19 pandemic must be taken to the next stage. This response should embrace health and the economy. Cargo must move smoothly across borders. There is need to distinguish between cargo and crew within the context of the coronavirus spread. It does not make sense to screen the cargo for the coronavirus.

Africa must also consider seriously the question of refugees. The continent must evolve a refugee coronavirus response strategy. Some countries in the world have granted full citizenship rights to such people. The major reason for this is access to full healthcare. This does not make sense in Africa, where there is nothing of that quantity and quality to access even for the citizens by birth. But the refugees have their own rights.

Africa must look inward to put in place its own coronavirus response strategy that respects the social systems and human rights. Above all, that strategy must be realistic. One can conduct mountain climbing training at the Indian Ocean sea level in Zanzibar, Tanzania, and run diving courses at Africa’s rooftop Uhuru of Peak on Mountain Kilimanjaro. Of course the training would be real because of the syllabus. But it would be unrealistic.

The COVID-19 disease is real. It is a war for whose victory all battlefront engagements must be original and realistic – and more so for Africa in the face of limited resources at the continent’s disposal.

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Felix Kaiza is a Tanzanian journalist with more than 50 years of experience currently working as an independent media consultant. Learned in agriculture, journalism, political science and international relations, his main fields of consultancy, besides the media, are good governance, nature conservation, tourism and investment. He was the first Tanzanian Chief Sub-Editor of an English daily newspaper in 1970, he has been behind the establishment and growth of the national independent media since the early 1990s. He is UNFAO Fellow Journalist since 1975 and has wide experience on regional integration. He worked on the Information Directorate of the original East African Community on whose ashes survive the current one. His ambition is to brand Tanzania in the inbound market with made-in-Tanzania brands, including information, almost all of which is currently foreign brewed.

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