KAIROS African partners respond to the COVID-19 Pandemic
In order to avoid the spread of virus COVID-19,A quote from the Pastoral Message from the South Sudan Council of Churches (SSCC) forwarded to KAIROS on 24 March 2020 by Fr. James Oyet Latansio, General Secretary of SSCC
“We must also be particularly aware exactly what we normally do, is what we should not do now, if we want to protect life.”
As of April 29, 52 countries in Africa are affected with more than 33,000 cumulative COVID-19 cases, nearly 1,500 deaths, and over 10,000 reported recoveries, according to the World Health Organization. South Africa is most affected with 4,800 cases.
Africa has grappled with, among other health challenges, vulnerabilities due to malnutrition, HIV, malaria, measles, and Ebola. In relation to the COVID-19 pandemic, Africa is in a potentially explosive, catastrophic tinderbox –exacerbated by lack of testing and underreporting– that may not peak until the fall. There are less than 2,000 ventilators spread across 41 countries, the majority being in South Africa, with 10 countries having none. The continent may experience its first recession in 25 years. Moreover, ongoing conflict situations may be exacerbated.
With the coronavirus pandemic there are many dimensions. Boarders are closed. Economic precarity is worsening, especially among those in the informal subsistence economy which constitutes over 80 percent of the continent’s economy. Food prices are soaring, and markets closed. People can follow social distancing directives only if their basic needs are met, a challenge for those living in poor, dense urban neighborhoods with large families and small dwellings without water and sanitation. Corruption and bureaucratic bottlenecks, and under paid public sector and security personnel, are fertile ground for rent seeking behaviour. There is a drop in African commodity pricing. African countries face worldwide competition with richer countries which have much larger financial capacity for personal protective equipment, ventilators and perhaps even an eventual vaccine.
Furthermore, there has been an increase in gender-based violence including domestic violence. Women are particularly vulnerable to the economic, health and environmental impacts of the pandemic.
Independent African thought leaders point out that the continent must come to grips with many challenges in the context of the pandemic. Challenges identified in African Arguments include the mismanagement of public finances and chronic under-investment in public health with many African elites using health services outside Africa. There are also significant concerns regarding food security. Africa is a net food importer and its supply chains have been disrupted, including and most significantly remittances from diasporic communities in Canada and elsewhere — leaving many hungry, disproportionately in the informal economy.
Against this dire backdrop how are some of KAIRIOS partners responding?
DRC. In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) where KAIROS women, peace and security (WPS) partner Héritiers de la Justice (HJ) operates out of Bukavu in South Kivu province in eastern DRC, there are approximately 360 cases in the country primarily acquired outside the country and some 25 deaths to date from COVID-19. The cases are mostly in Kinshasa with a few others in provinces, and with South Kivu experiencing three to date. There are only some 65 ventilators, essentially all in Kinshasa, for a country of some 90 million.
Mobility is very limited since April 9, with those in Bukavu initially not permitted to travel outside the city. There are public health/hygiene checkpoints. An emphasis has been on banning travel between Kinshasa and elsewhere. Masks must be worn outside. The number of people in private and public vehicles has been mandated to be reduced increasing the cost of local transportation. There can be no meetings of 20 or more people. There are greater opportunities for rent seeking behavior by police and military personnel in places like local markets for example if masks are not being worn. With the advent of the coronavirus, public authorities are becoming even more lax on security issues and as poverty worsens, bandits are more active. No cases are being heard in courts at this point of time although arrests may be made. There are negative gendered impacts of inheritance processes due to public health strictures that limit the number of people involved and the time durations during which inheritance negotiations are conducted. Human rights defenders, especially women (lawyers or not) are not allowed time to testify before these courts during the pandemic period.
WPS programming includes increased awareness raising and community dissemination of messages on gender-based violence (GBV) and COVID-19. Hygienic protection kits against Covid-19 have been purchased and distributed to HJ staff and its grassroots provincial community network. The production and hosting of the local weekly radio program “Tuitete Haki” (Swahili, “Defending Rights”) has continued and will deal more increasingly with the COVID-19 pandemic public health directives. At the main HJ legal clinic in Bukavu, staff and clients wear masks to engage with a reduced number of clients and have increased their reliance on lawyers from the province’s interior to provide legal support and information on GBV cases.
For the operation of the 10 legal clinics in the interior of the province there is greater reliance on the grassroot network of social workers/paralegals to represent the concerns and cases of women. HJ is increasing its use of WhatsApp and the internet to communicate with the legal clinics and grassroots provincial network.
South Sudan. The South Sudan Council of Churches (SSCC) based in Juba Greater Equatoria Region in the south operates nationwide in South Sudan. The WPS programing also has focal points in Malakal in the Greater Upper Nile region in the northeast and Wau in the Bahr el Ghazal region in the west.
There are some 34 confirmed cases of COVID-19 cases, the first few brought in by UN workers. There are some four ventilators for a country of approximately 11 million people, excluding refugees. People who are living and working in close quarters are most affected in South Sudan due to social distancing directives banning public gatherings. Many women and families are not able to access of basic necessities. The contraction of the informal economy due to social distancing impacts disproportionately on women. There are shortages of face masks, soap/hand sanitizers, and potable water. There are critical issues of lack of food itself as well as an increase in domestic and gender-based violence during the pandemic restrictions.
During the pandemic, radio talk shows will be used wherever possible to address COVID-19, gender justice, trauma healing, and peace messaging. These are broadcast in Juba Arabic and local languages from Juba, Malakal and Wau. SSCC will use the national Women Link for Peace network to inform grassroots women leaders of the current context and how they can reach more women with enhanced communication. This includes community church radio across the country which works with the SSCC’s nationwide network of local Inter-Church Committees to increase awareness especially on issues on issues of gender-based violence and mutual aid. As the COVID-19 circumstances subside, there will be monthly fasting and prayers at peace rallies in Malakal, Wau and Juba where possible while respecting social distancing public health directives.
Other responses. There are of course other responses to the pandemic. An exploratory African partner of KAIROS, the WoMin African Alliance, offers a “COVID-19 – Crisis upon Crisis in Africa: An Ecofeminist Perspective”. Some authors, such as those associated with the pan-African platform “African Arguments” suggest that African governments should immediately focus on scaling up the infrastructure for universal cash transfers with aid donors doing the same. Also articulated is a urgency for pan-Africanism, and adaptable African federalism for greater intrastate linkages and infrastructure to replace the current extractivist model.(e.g., the Group for Research and Initiatives for the Liberation of Africa published the “GRILA comments on the Coronavirus Pandemic: The Condition of the Continent and a Pan-African Response”.
Another KAIROS African partner, the Fellowship of Christian Councils and Churches in the Great Lakes and Horn of Africa (FECCLAHA) has a call to prayer during the time of the COVID-19 in its latest newsletter:
End of Domestic and Sexual Violence and protection of the vulnerable in our community:
Sadly, our homes are not always safe places for some women and girls. With the restrictions on movements/ social distancing/ gathering directives, many women and young girls and other vulnerable groups are exposed to domestic and sexual violence.
Let us pray that we will speak out against such vices and call out perpetrators of this evil act in our homes and communities.
For more on how KAIROS’ WPS partners are managing during the pandemic, visit: Women peacebuilders respond to COVID-19