The first case of coronavirus in the African continent was reported in Egypt, on the 14th of February. With that, the rest of the continent braced for the impact of a pandemic that has infected more than 35 million people worldwide. Despite the limitations of healthcare systems in the continent, most African countries are taking the coronavirus in unprecedented stride. According to WHO’s International Clinical Trials Registry Platform (ICTRP), Egypt, South Africa, Nigeria, Ghana and Kenya, are among countries undergoing COVID-19 clinical trials.
Now on one hand, the continent is witnessing uncharted initiative towards access to health rights with governments and leading businesses opening their pockets. South Africa for instance, announced a $26 billion fiscal stimulus package to tackle the economic fallout from the coronavirus. On the other hand, the ingenuity we are seeing proves that African governments are not powerless over existing systemic pandemics that devastate and marginalize Africa everyday like we’re made to believe.
The COVID-19 pandemic, like every other crisis in a capitalist country, was always going to aggravate pre-existing inequalities such as poverty and violence, particularly against people of different physical and economic intersections in a way that creates a unique implication. And in the case of our continent, the coronavirus disproportionately affects marginalized black people and specifically black women and children.
Since the lockdown in South Africa, the National Gender-Based Violence (GBV) Command Centre recieved at least 87 000 gender-based violence calls during the first two weeks of the national lockdown and is currently receiving triple the amount of calls. According to a government study, a woman is murdered every three hours in South Africa and many are assaulted and sexually violated.
One such woman was Tshegofatso Pule, whose inhumane murder recently sparked outrage across the country. She was 9 months pregnant when she was brutally assaulted, raped and hanged from a tree. Then, in a case eerily similar to Sandra Bland, Robyn Montsumi was found hanged in a cell while in police custody, after she was arrested for suspected drug possession. According to her friends and spouse, Robyn, a sex worker, was left in the cells, uncharged, feeling ill and in withdrawal.
In Nigeria, Uwaila Vera Omozuwa, was a microbiology student in Benin City. CNN reported that she was found dead, lying half-naked in a pool of blood at the church she frequented. According to the United Nations children agency, UNICEF, one in four Nigerian women are sexually abused before they turn 18 – and just as we’ve seen throughout the continent, a majority of the cases go unprosecuted.
Meanwhile in Kenya, 16-year-old Julius M was kidnapped and sexually assaulted by a man who reportedly did it because he “needed female company” in order to get through the lock down. Julius was rescued by neighbors but others are not so lucky. According to Human Rights Watch, 56 percent of women and girls aged between fifteen and forty-nine have experienced physical and sexual violence.
Julius, Omozuwa, Montsumi & Pule’s killings are testament to the cavalier attitudes towards the lives and safety of black women that prevail in the continent. The circumstances differ but the underlying problem is simply that African governments have failed to protect and invest in the safety of women where the world isn’t watching. To this end, it’s easier to get a face mask than it is to get a sanitary towel, a rape kit or a safe abortion. This too, is violence.
Now that we have seen how African governments can utilise capital to organise for health rights and safeguard against preventable death, how can they continue to explain the permissible prevelance of gender based violence? How do African governments continue to be absolved of investment to support and catapult the rights of marginalized people?
In March, the Prime Minister of Egpyt made exemplary strides in a bid to safeguard the rights of vulnerable women during the pandemic by introducing a specific gender perspective to their COVID-19 plans. This includes granting pregnant employees and working mothers whose children are under 12 years old exceptional leave during the implementation period. The rest of the continent needs to follow suit. The lack of effort when it comes to improving human conditions in Africa, in comparison to the response enjoyed by the coronavirus under the gaze of the world, is tantamount to state-sponsored violence.
While Africa is making great efforts in the face of coronavirus at the surface, this should not overshadow the very real and often overlooked challenges, that the continent continues to face. While we imagine there will be massive bailouts for large corporations that are struggling, the impetus to support the most vulnerable leaves us wanting.