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‘The COVID-19 pandemic is a public health emergency—but it is far more. It is an economic crisis. A social crisis. And a human crisis that is fast becoming a human rights crisis.’ António Guterres, Secretary General United Nations

We are facing a global health crisis unlike any experienced in recent times. The coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19) is exacerbating human suffering, widening inequalities and killing people. It has been described as not just a health crisis but a crisis that is fast becoming a human rights crisis. This is because it is attacking societies at their very core. Although the impact of COVID-19 will vary from country to country, the pandemic is exposing major weaknesses in national economies, especially economies in sub-Saharan Africa.

For instance, several developed countries were able to roll out short-term economic palliatives in addition to existing social safety nets to cushion the effects of the pandemic on their citizens, especially the most vulnerable and those most at risk. Although governments and central banks in these countries have come up with a series of macro-economic measures, including tax relief and interest rate reductions, in response to the economic effects of the pandemic, the greatest challenge is getting the balance right between people’s lives and livelihoods and being able to provide help directly to the people in the short term. Unfortunately, most countries in sub-Saharan Africa have been unable to provide such palliatives, and where some sort is provided, distribution to the people that need it the most is mired by corruption. In Nigeria, for example, some palliative measures were introduced by the government but the key challenges to the success of that programme are lack of data to adequately identify the category of people in need, corruption, lack of accountability and lack of transparency.

A strategy for recovery is important. A structured post- COVID-19 recovery process that is human rights-centred is imperative for all countries, particularly countries in sub-Saharan Africa because their desire to develop and their developmental pathway, in the long term, will be affected by the choices they make going forward.

Human rights are central to the COVID-19 response. COVID-19 is affecting everyone, but disproportionately affecting vulnerable groups and worsening gender inequalities. It has been likened to the Second World War. Like then, the world has widely agreed that there should be no going back. We must build back better from the status quo of social and economic inequalities perpetuating poverty and environmental degradation, within a human rights framework. Human rights are essential in framing an appropriate response to the pandemic because they put people at the centre, produce better outcomes, and no one is left behind. Responses that are shaped by and respect human rights ensure that issues that are most impacted by the pandemic, such as the right to life, health, and human dignity, are preserved. Furthermore, a human rights focus provides the springboard for emerging from this crisis with more equitable societies, and ensuring sustainable development. In response to this need, there have been some initiatives from multilateral agencies and collaborations amongst like-minded organisations, such as the United Nations Framework for the Immediate Socio-Economic Response to COVID-19 (SERF) and the Build Back Better campaigns.

Build Back Better Africa
In the forthcoming months, the economic impacts of the pandemic will be disproportionately felt in African countries, particularly amongst the continent’s predominantly poor population who already faced inequalities and poverty before the onslaught of COVID-19. During the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014, more people died from the interruption of social services and economic breakdown than from the virus itself.

Africa must not go back to ‘business-as-usual’. What we do next in Africa could change everything, especially our developmental trajectory. This is especially important because the World Bank forecast that COVID-19 will likely trigger a recession in sub-Saharan Africa, its first in 25 years. As the world recovers, we have a chance to reset the clock and build back better.

One of the key lessons from this pandemic is that it reiterates the importance of robust institutions, such as an inclusive and well-resourced health and education systems, and justice systems promoting rule of law, good governance, transparency and accountability. Societies with robust institutions are in a much better position to adequately fight emergencies of this nature. Good institutions matter for development and enable societies to address challenges, whilst poor or weak institutions hinder sustained and equitable growth.

The pandemic highlights the absurdities that most sub-Saharan African countries are at once the world's poorest and, arguably, the world’s richest in terms of natural and mineral resources. Hitherto, for decades before the pandemic, health and social care systems were both dangerously under-resourced and in need of reform. Hospitals were barely functioning because they were poorly equipped, the political elites freely practised medical tourism, using money that was stolen from the commonwealth of their citizens to buy first class medical treatment from the world’s best hospitals. However, with the advent of COVID-19, the ban on international travel and the operation of lockdowns globally, those same elites were forced to access the healthcare system that they neglected, refused to fund and equip, and diverted precious resources from, resources that should have been allocated to healthcare for their personal gains. The irony of this situation is that the political elites of many sub-Saharan African countries are badly hit by the pandemic in terms of loss of lives and casualties. The poor are also adversely affected in terms of gaps in social protection and basic services, such as essential health service delivery, loss of income and jobs, and lack of social protection and palliatives from their national governments. Some of the challenges that most sub-Saharan African countries deal with, and which are heightened by COVID-19, include corruption, access to healthcare, poverty, access to clean water and energy, an economy that can fight the climate crisis, poor infrastructure and under-funded education. All of these issues threaten the already fragile human rights gains and wins.

The response lies at the national and sub-national level
The post COVID-19 socio-economic recovery response in sub-Saharan Africa should aim to promote changes that end inequalities and injustices, build infrastructure and strong institutions, fund research and education, promote access to healthcare, including maternal and reproductive healthcare, access to energy, environmental protection, and poverty reduction, all within a human rights framework.

A structured framework such as the United Nations framework for the immediate socio-economic response to COVID-19 (SERF) can be used as a guidance tool for the recovery process. The SERF is a pathway designed to help countries tackle the devastating social and economic dimensions of the pandemic. It includes five elements: ensuring that essential health services are still available and protecting health systems; helping people cope with adversity through social protection and basic services; protecting jobs, supporting small and medium-sized enterprises and informal sector workers through economic response and recovery programmes; guiding the necessary surge in fiscal and financial stimulus to make macroeconomic policies work for the most vulnerable while strengthening multilateral and regional responses; and promoting social cohesion and investing in community-led resilience and response systems. These five elements are connected by environmental sustainability and gender equality in order to achieve the #buildbackbetter global goal.

It is recommended that sub-Saharan African countries should review their existing long and medium term development strategy, taking into cognisance the UN SERF recovery framework. The pandemic has highlighted pre-existing inequalities and, in most cases, made these worse. It is exposing vulnerabilities in almost all aspects of human existence, including social, political, economic and environmental systems, which are in turn intensifying the impacts of the pandemic.

Oluwatoyin Adejonwo

Written by Oluwatoyin Adejonwo

Dr. Adejonwo-Osho is a lecturer at the Faculty of Law, University of Lagos, Nigeria. She has experience in international environmental law, including experience directly related to climate change and sustainable development policy.

Cite as: Adejonwo, Oluwatoyin. "#BuildBackBetterAfrica", GC Human Rights Preparedness, 17 September 2020, https://gchumanrights.org/preparedness/article-on/buildbackbetterafrica.html


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