Wasafiri’s Covid-Africa Series
The Covid-19 pandemic continues to reach deeper into communities in Africa. In response, governments are tending to adopt approaches similar to what has worked in parts of Asia, Europe and the United States; near total lockdowns, strict social distancing, enforced closures of business and strict enforcement measures.
In one of our recent articles, we ask for an African-led response in identifying approaches that are more suitable to a continent which faces different, and perhaps more acute, socio-economic pressures and is bound by different social and cultural norms that are difficult to shift. A copy-paste approach fails to recognise the different circumstances that communities in different regions, and even in different places within the same country, experience. These concerns are echoed in a study by McKinsey and have driven the African Union’s recent appointment of Special Envoys to garner international support for Africa’s response.
In our Covid-Africa series, we take a deep-dive into life under Covid-19, taking different perspectives to look at the risks and realities for poor and vulnerable people, and ask “how should we respond differently?”
Part 1: Covid-19 and the growing appeal of extremism
“There is a strong likelihood that Armed Opposition Groups will take advantage of the distraction of Covid-19 to launch new campaigns or increase existing efforts.” This stark warning from a recent report from Mercy Corps underscores the risk that Covid-19 may provide the space for violent extremist activity to increase.
In East Africa, governments are moving quickly to enforce strict measures designed to curb the spread of the virus, which could be catastrophic once it reaches overcrowded, informal settlements.
While these policies may slow the spread of the virus, the longer-term impact on livelihoods is potentially more harmful from economic stability and security perspectives. Curfews, the closure of bars, restaurants and cafes, limited working hours, and mandatory social distancing in other public spaces and on public transport all mean that earnings for workers and their families are increasingly limited. Feelings of desperation and anxiety are likely to increase, which presents a clear opening for extremist actors to try to exploit growing vulnerability.
At the same time, heavy-handed approaches to enforcing these measures, as we have already seen in a few East African countries, are likely to further exacerbate tensions between communities and the state. VE organisations (VEOs) in the region are known for leveraging sour relationships between communities and the security sector, negative perceptions of the police, and the widespread belief that the state often does not care for its citizenry. As security agents continue to harshly enforce the rules, these anti-state narratives could resonate more deeply with communities who believe they are being treated unjustly, presenting another potential entry point for extremists to garner sympathy and support from affected communities.
In this already fragile context, many of the international organisations and other civil society groups who provide critical support to many of these communities are pausing activities or withdrawing altogether because of the uncertainties around the spread of Covid-19. Abandoning vulnerable and at-risk groups in a time of even greater need may increase anger and mistrust in civil society, particularly in areas where information about the virus and mitigation practices may not be widespread. For many of these communities, life must proceed as normal; individuals need to do whatever they can to earn money. While organisations are re-strategising and determining how to effectively engage with communities in the wake of the pandemic, VEOs could leverage the gaps in programming to recruit; they are known to manipulate narratives around abandonment by state and non-state organisations as a recruitment tactic.
Facing tough choices, engaging the community is vital
Governments face a tough choice: do they prioritise stopping the spread of Covid-19, no matter the cost, or do they focus on the growing issues of poverty and insecurity? Where is the balance?
Convening a diverse set of stakeholders – including involving those who represent the voices of those living on the fringe – across economic sectors, government and regional economic bodies is necessary to formulating more context appropriate responses that consider the needs of communities most impacted by harsh and strict measures. Taking into account community-level perspectives is vital to this process; it ensures an understanding of the specific challenges faced in this region. These conversations must also consider the implications on conflict and security, and the risks of playing into the hands of extremist or anti-state groups.
As the executive director of the World Health Organization, Dr. Michael Ryan, recently said in a talk on how to respond to a pandemic, close engagement and consultation with local communities is vital. Efforts must be scaled up to spread accurate information on the health risks associated with COVID-19 to help people understand the severity of the situation. Decision-makers and humanitarian actors must consult and interact with these communities to devise more effective and relevant approaches that are implementable, effective, and most importantly, context appropriate. And those offering livelihood support to bolster incomes in these areas must get creative and continue supporting and interacting with the most vulnerable to ensure that others are not able to take advantage of these uncertain and unstable times.