Africa’s Peace and Security: The Pressures of COVID-19!

Sep 7, 2021, 12:27 PM

Over a year after the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the coronavirus a global pandemic, the dramatic numbers of infections and deaths that some observers predicted for the African continent have yet to emerge.

As of 4 May, the global COVID-19 death toll stands at an estimated 3,217.281, among which -- accurate reporting remains a challenge -- Africa has recorded 82,259. The relatively low number of virus-related deaths on the continent, whichever of many possible factors are driving it, provides a sense that Africa is resilient. Polishing this positive image is the fact that almost all countries, except Benin, Burundi and Tanzania, took vigorous isolation measures when the outbreak started, responding much quicker than Europe and the United States, and consequently averting much of the devastation the disease has wrought there.

All this good news could turn bad, however. Caseloads are on the rise and have been since January 2021. The spread of a new variant in South Africa is raising alarm -- it is the worst-affected country with the highest death rate (54,511), but it has a better testing regime and public health strategy than most African states. Meanwhile, an economic storm is gathering due to virus-related restrictions on movement of people and goods. What the pandemic means for a continent whose population is growing at 2.7 per cent a year -- if national GDPs cannot match that fast growth -- is unclear. More concerning is what it means for Africa's fragile or conflict-affected societies.

In March 2020, Crisis Group began examining the pandemic's long- and short-term consequences for deadly conflict. We assessed the potential for COVID-19 to cause enormous damage to fragile states and trigger unrest. We judged that COVID-19's reach, its impact on public health, the economic downturn it would precipitate and the social disruptions it would leave in its wake would shape conflicts and crises around the world. We argued that women, children, refugees, the internally displaced and citizens of countries suffering from crisis mismanagement would bear the brunt of the pandemic's knock-on effects.

A year on, the jury is still out on the pandemic's impact on international peace and security. COVID-19 has been a complicating factor in various war zones, but conflict resolution has fared no worse than before; indeed, conflict prevention and resolution were struggling before the pandemic. Globally, the pandemic worsened relations between the U.S. and China and dented multilateralism, but those trends were already notable before the virus spread. Whether things will improve with a new U.S. president is unclear, but thankfully Joe Biden has signalled a return to a broad approach to international cooperation.

In Africa, the pandemic has neither altered nor worsened the conflict landscape, but it has often proven distracting. The need to contain the pandemic threw off course the African Union's (AU) work on "Silencing the Guns" -- an ambitious goal to end conflicts on the continent by 2020. The organisation has extended this project's deadline by ten years. The AU was right, of course, to pivot to address the pandemic and it responded effectively. Led initially by the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) -- an institution created in 2017 as a result of lessons learnt from West Africa's Ebola crisis in 2014-2015 -- the AU reacted swiftly, establishing the Africa Task Force for Novel Coronavirus with its CDC and the WHO, guidelines and standards for government responses and helping distribute test kits and protective equipment. The AU and CDC are now playing a major role in rolling out vaccines to the AU's 55 member states.

In Africa -- like elsewhere -- the pandemic gave great advantage to strongmen who sought to further tighten their grip.

A year ago, we wondered whether various national leaders would exploit COVID-19 for political purposes. In Africa -- like elsewhere -- the pandemic gave great advantage to strongmen who sought to further tighten their grip.

Nor can one ignore the situation in Tanzania, which was led by a president who denied the pandemic's very presence. He, too, died recently in murky circumstances. Assuming the cause of death was COVID-19, the virus has completely altered Tanzania's political landscape by ushering the country's first female president into office who also appears more willing to contain the pandemic.

But even Africa's more democratic-leaning governments (eg, Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa) have seen instances of police using unnecessary force to enforce lockdown rules, though a recently released survey showed South Africans were prepared to sacrifice certain rights to stop the spread of COVID-19, and that black South Africans seemed the most willing in that regard among the country's different population groups.

A Guest Editorial

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