Locking down entire cities and limiting movements of millions of people across the globe appears as one of the efficient strategies in efforts to limit the spread of the COVID-19. However, in the African context of informal economies, uncontrolled settlements, weak or inexistent health infrastructures as well as food insecurity, there is a huge challenge in implementing the total lockdown approach in the fight against the COVID-19. Copying this strategy comes with consequences that could be even more devastating than the pandemic itself.

It is a well-known fact that in many African countries, the economy is dominated by the informal sector. Despite the fact that it is not regulated, the informal economy generates most of the revenues for people involved in small scale businesses or those who live on a daily basis revenue.

According to the International Labor Organization, the informal sector in Africa employs more than 66% of the total labor force. In some parts of the continent, especially those affected by years of civil war or various forms of violence, the percentage can go as higher as 85%.

In Kinshasa for example, it is believed that around 90% of people are employed in the informal sector. A decision to implement the total lockdown simply means that all these people who are employed by the informal sector will not be able to make any earnings and consequently will not be able to bring food on their tables.

This is a huge dilemma that some if not most African governments have to deal with hands-on. It is necessary to sit and reflect on the best ways to address the danger of a deadly virus spreading rapidly from one community to the other while trying to solve the difficult issue of keeping the population out of hunger. The failure to solve these problems could lead to humanitarian chaos, upheavals and possibly even to violence.

The chaotic settlements of the African metropolis

The second problem that makes the total lockdown very difficult to implement is the chaotic settlements observed in most of the African metropolis. The slum phenomenon in Africa is a result of poverty where many governments have been unable to offer decent housing to their population.

In most cases, poverty and poor housing go hand in hand. In addition, the lack of adequate and well-equipped health facilities, sanitation infrastructures such as clean water, proper sewage systems should be considered as an open door for the transmission of contagious diseases such as the COVID-19.

This also represents a serious hygiene threat to vulnerable people living in slums or other forms of informal settlements. The life in slums poses a serious problem of space. While measures against coronavirus recommend social distancing, within informal settlements people live crowded in small places.

In most cases, they do not have any other alternative. It is easy to find a household in which from 6 to 10 people or even more share a tiny apartment or simply a shack. This creates a permissive environment for large scale contamination.

It is unimaginable to plan a total lockdown for instance in places like the Kibera slum in Nairobi-Kenya or the South African townships like Khayelitsha, Mfuleni (Cape Town) or Mamelodi (Pretoria) where living in makeshift houses is common and such basic infrastructure like a toilet is problematic and not accessible to everyone.

The lockdown approach needs to take these critical issues into account and the proposed solution should rely on the local realities.

The gap between the rich and the poor is yet another factor to ponder on before deciding whether the total lockdown is the best option or not. For the elite living in posh areas where service delivery in terms of water, electricity, communication and well-functioning health centers, the lockdown is possible.

For instance, in Cape Town, people who live close to the downtown areas such as Green Point, Camps Bay, Hout Bay, etc., and those who live in the townships of Gugulethu, Mitchells Plains, etc… will not feel the effects of a total lockdown in the same way. What works for the elite does not necessarily work in poor areas. It is important to analyze and understand these dynamics before declaring that a wide lockdown for a given city is possible.

These disparities observed across Africa are important to be ignored during the decision-making process, especially with regard to lockdown. The inequality between the rich and poor in times of crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic represents a potential threat to the security and stability of a nation. In fact, poor and hungry people, who could potentially be infected, can become a dangerous reality for the elite because they traverse similar spaces.

What could be done to make sure that the spread of the pandemic is curbed and at the same time the burden and limitations on poor people are minimized? It is necessary for every government to craft solutions based on local realities.

The decision of whether to lock down or not should be discussed with representatives of the concerned communities so that their suggestions are part of a broader solution. Examples of local solutions abound. In DRC the government has decided to implement an intermittent lockdown so that people are allowed to make new provisions.

Other countries such as Mauritania, Kenya, Libya have established curfews. There are also possibilities of limiting inter-city movements so that the contagion does not move from one city to another or to villages.

Local realities need to be analyzed and adapted solutions need to be proposed in proportion to the threat that the Covid-19 pandemic represents. And the well-being of every category of people, whether poor or rich needs to be considered.

Patrick Hajayandi is Senior Project Leader, Peacebuilding Interventions Programme, Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, Cape Town, South Africa. 

Article first published on RegionWeek.