COVID-19 prevention measures have taken a violent turn in parts of Africa as countries impose lockdowns and curfews or seal off major cities.
Africa, Latin America Fragile Targets for Coronavirus Spread
Police fired tear gas at a crowd of Kenyan ferry commuters as the country’s first day of a coronavirus curfew slid into chaos. At the same time, elsewhere, officers were captured in mobile phone footage whacking people with batons.
Minutes after South Africa’s three-week lockdown began Friday, police screamed at homeless people in downtown Johannesburg and went after some with batons. Some citizens reported the police use of rubber bullets. Fifty-five people across the country were arrested.
Also, in an apparent show of force on Saturday, South Africa’s military raided a large workers’ hostel in the Alexandra township, where some residents had defied the lockdown.
In Rwanda, the first country in sub-Saharan Africa to impose a lockdown, police have denied that two civilians shot dead Monday were killed for defying the new measures, saying the men attacked an officer after being stopped.
And Zimbabwe, where human rights groups widely criticize police for deadly crackdowns, is set to enter a three-week lockdown on Monday. The country’s handful of virus cases already threatens to overwhelm one of the world’s most fragile health systems.
In Kenya, outrage over the actions of police was swift.
“We were horrified by excessive use of police force” ahead of the curfew that began Friday night, Amnesty International Kenya and 19 other human rights groups said in a statement issued Saturday.
The tear gas caused hundreds of people trying to reach a ferry in the port city of Mombasa ahead of the overnight curfew to touch their faces as they vomited, spat and wiped away tears, increasing the chance of the virus’ spread, the rights groups said.
The police actions were unacceptable and “brutal,” the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Justice and Peace Commission said in a separate statement.
For his part, Kenya’s Cabinet secretary for health, Mutahi Kagwe, said: “I am appealing to our people to make it very unnecessary for them to engage with police by staying at home.”
“I am also urging the police that people must be treated humanely,” he added.
Health experts say the virus’ spread, though still at an early stage, resembles the arc seen in Europe, adding to widespread anxiety. Cases across Africa were set to climb above 4,000 late Saturday.
They also warned that the abuses of the new measures by authorities are an immediate concern.
Other experts claimed that the confinement measures that have been extended as the best way to prevent a serious disaster in African countries –taking into account the fragility of a large part of the continent– can be disastrous in practice.
Taking such measures in a scenario that was already fragile with high poverty rates, informal settlements, refugee camps, conflict zones, and overcrowded districts without essential services will not be easy, they said.