Coronavirus: Why Are Some African States Easing Lockdowns?

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African countries have fewer coronavirus cases than much of the world, but weaker healthcare systems do put the continent at risk.

Lockdown measures can help prevent the virus spreading, yet governments have taken very different approaches to imposing restrictions on their populations.

Who’s had the toughest restrictions?

The South African government had one of the harshest lockdowns and has only just started permitting daily exercise, but people must continue to observe distancing, the wearing of masks and washing hands.

Restaurants are also now allowed to deliver takeaway food.

But it has kept schools and universities closed, limited hospital and prison visits, and restricted movement to key workers. All public gatherings apart from funerals are banned and the army has been deployed to enforce these measures.

Zimbabwe enforced a strict lockdown, although it only had a small number of infections.

Kenya imposed a partial lockdown, with travel in and out of major cities banned. It also had an overnight nationwide curfew, that has resulted in more than 400 arrests for violations.

Nigeria, by far Africa’s most populous nation, closed its land borders and banned all international flights in late March.

It is now beginning a process of easing restrictions, partially allowing shops and markets to resume. Schools and places of worship are to stay shut.

Some countries have imposed far less sweeping controls on their citizens.

Tanzania reported its first case in mid-March and the government closed education centres, but public and religious gatherings were not prohibited and it only suspended international flights on 11 April.

Why are some countries lifting restrictions?

Ghana placed lockdown restrictions on its major cities, but these have now been largely lifted. However, social events and public gatherings are still banned, borders remained closed and school closures will stay in place for the time being.

President Nana Akufo-Addo said increased testing and improved treatment centres meant they could ease measures.

“The lockdown was beginning to have a negative impact on the poor who mostly depend on their daily sales to make a living,” says BBC Ghana correspondent Thomas Naadi.

The Democratic Republic of Congo has also relaxed some restrictions in those parts of its capital city, Kinshasa, that had been badly hit by coronavirus.

In Rwanda, religious centres and bars remain closed, but places of work are being opened up. Movement in and out of the capital, Kigali, is restricted and a night-time curfew is in place.

Are lockdowns the right response in Africa?

The Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, the body that co-ordinates pandemic responses across the continent, told the BBC that lockdowns have played a role in reducing new cases.

“Without the lockdown, we would have seen a more explosive outbreak,” says director John Nkengasong.

He adds that it’s not just the lockdown itself, but also what else you do during that period.

“You intensify your testing, your isolation and your contact tracing so that when you unlock the system at least you have created a huge impact on the virus spread.”

The World Health Organization also says countries should ensure they have the capacity to detect, test, isolate and care for confirmed cases as they ease restrictions.

Coronavirus is a much greater risk to older populations, putting particular pressures on countries in Europe.

The median ages in Italy and the UK are about 45 and 40 for example, whereas the average age in sub-Saharan Africa is about 20.

However, that’s not to say other factors don’t come into play in Africa such as sanitation and limited access to good healthcare.

Some voices have questioned the need for continuing lockdowns, for example the main opposition party in South Africa.

There are economic concerns – Western countries have put huge sums into supporting businesses and social welfare schemes. But many African countries simply do not have that option.

And overseas remittances, a big source of income, will decrease, further harming local economies.

There have also been human rights issues raised about the behaviour of some security forces when enforcing restrictions.

Human rights group Amnesty International reported that there’d been abuses by security forces in South Africa, Kenya, Zimbabwe and Nigeria.

“Most states have expanded police and army power, and for the most part it has led to an increase in police violence and misconduct,” says Eda Seyhan at Covid State Watch, an organisation monitoring the global abuse of powers during the pandemic.

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