Kenya is one of several African states who have implemented strict and sometimes violent lockdown measures in the battle against Coronavirus. Kenya, Uganda and South Africa are not only imposing hand washing and social distancing regulations. Lockdowns, curfews and crowd control enforcement have resulted in civilian oppression and death breaching fundamental humanitarian rights. South Africa imposed a national lockdown on March 26. Since then, BBC reports the deaths of at least eight people at the hands of the police. In Uganda, Human Rights Watch (HRW) has reported police beating fruit and vegetable vendors and motorcycle taxi riders. Meanwhile, a nation-wide curfew between 7 p.m. and 5 a.m. in Kenya has resulted in the use of tear gas, guns and whips on the civilian population.
Moreover, the United Nations Human Rights Office has stepped in to warn against the use of excessive force to control state populations. For many African nations, the virus has been a blow to already deprived health care systems. Food supplies have been diminished and many people are breaking curfew in order to search for food. In response to the current health crisis, the importance of humanitarian support cannot be overstated.
Civilians Paying the Price
13-year-old Yassin Hussein Moyo lost his life to COVID-19 response measures. A ‘stray bullet’ hit Yassin in the stomach whilst he was sitting on his apartment balcony. His family now says an apology will not bring their son back. His father Moyo explained, “my child was shot on the balcony at home, he wasn’t even on the street… I support the curfew but how the policeman handled it was very wrong.” Charles Owino, a spokesman for the Kenyan police, declined to respond to CNN questions regarding the use of excessive police force.
Amnesty International’s Kenya director; Irungu Houghton, explained violent police behaviour “further terrorizes a public that is already anxious and fearful.” People will not get tested for the virus with no guarantee for their safety. BBC reports in the Ugandan town of Elegu, 10 officers were charged with torture after accusations of caning 38 women and forcing them to swim in mud. These events call for a severe reminder of the importance of human rights in efforts to eliminate COVID-19.
The UN presses for governments to “recognize that the threat is a virus, not people.” It is devastating to see authoritative abuse is one of a number of concerns for many African citizens. Olal Happy, a convener at the Social Justice Working Group in Kenya explains that “people living in slums are fighting to survive on many fronts […] They’re fighting Coronavirus, they’re fighting hunger, and they’re fighting police.”
The Right Way to Respond
The Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention told BBC national lockdowns have effectively reduced a spike in new cases. Intensifying testing, contact monitoring and isolation make a significant difference in the virus’ ability to spread. However, effectiveness has become outweighed by the negative humanitarian impact it is having. It appears to be authoritative groups such as the police and military deployments that are responsible for abusive enforcement. Governments must, therefore, prevent human rights breaches and regain the people’s trust through punishment for violent behaviour. Removing weapons such as guns and whips reduces the capacity to use aggressive enforcement mechanisms. Furthermore, UN intervention may be a solution to discontinue authoritative brutality. Discussions with African state governments would raise the importance of civilian welfare.
Human rights and safety do not become overshadowed by the need for containment measures. The international community understands the threat COVID-19 poses for health and economy. We cannot additionally allow it to threaten our ability to support and care for one another in times of emergency.
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