Nairobi — The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the need for African governments to strengthen social protection systems and fulfill people’s rights to social security and an adequate standard of living, Human Rights Watch said today. In response to rising poverty and hunger caused by the pandemic many African governments implemented cash transfers and food assistance, but most households did not receive any support. The World Bank forecasts that the Covid-19 crisis will have pushed an additional 29 million Africans into extreme poverty by the end of 2021.
“The Covid-19 crisis has wreaked havoc on the livelihoods of millions of households across Africa, leaving families hungry and desperate for help,” said Mausi Segun, Africa director at Human Right Watch. “African governments must invest urgently in social protection systems to ensure that Africans are able to endure the devastating economic effects of the pandemic with dignity
Between March 2020 and August 2021, Human Rights Watch interviewed more than 270 people in Cameroon, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, and Uganda about the impact of the pandemic on access to food and livelihoods, and government efforts to respond. Researchers interviewed affected families and health workers as well as representatives from nongovernmental organizations, bilateral donors, and international financial institutions.
Human Rights Watch in Kenya and Nigeria documented widespread hunger, job losses and falling income among those living in poverty in Nairobi or Lagos. In Kenya, the research also highlighted an increase in violence against women and girls during Covid-19-related lockdowns and curfews. Researchers also examined the effects of the pandemic on child labor in Uganda and Ghana. In Cameroon, the research highlighted corruption and a lack of transparency in the government’s use of funds intended to address the health and economic impacts of Covid-19.
Interviews were conducted in Nigeria, Ghana and Uganda by or in collaboration with partner organizations such as Justice & Empowerment Initiatives, Friends of the Nation, and the Initiative for Social and Economic Rights.
Interviewees in five countries stated that travel restrictions and lockdowns imposed to stop the spread of the virus and a downturn in the economy, combined with other measures to reduce food access, have led to a decrease in their ability to purchase food. In Ghana, a 14-year-old girl said that, after losing access to free school meals because of school closures, she worked nine hours a day gutting and scaling fish. She said, “If I don’t do it then life will be hard for us all.”
Most people who were interviewed said they didn’t receive any government support. A hotel secretary from Douala in Cameroon said that the state had not helped her. She was struggling to pay for her children’s school fees and food after her salary was reduced by two-thirds.
The lack of child benefits, unemployment support, or other financial assistance for those who have lost their jobs or income is a sign of the weakness of African social security systems. Data from the International Labour Organization (ILO) reveals that fewer than 20 percent of Africans had access to any social protection whatsoever in 2020, or when data for their country was last available.
Many African countries sought to fill the gaps in social security coverage during the pandemic, introducing cash transfers and food assistance. Human Rights Watch discovered that only a small percentage of households in need of support were served by the programs being introduced or expanded in Ghana, Nigeria, Uganda, and Nigeria.
“We keep hearing rumors about the government sharing money and food, but I haven’t seen any in my area,” said a mother of seven from Lagos State, Nigeria, who lost her job as a cleaner in March 2020 due to Covid-19-related closures.
Research in Kenya and Nigeria also revealed that corruption has at times prevented the limited available social assistance from reaching those who need it most. In Kenya, Human Rights Watch found evidence that local officials and politicians in charge of enrolling people in a Covid-19 cash transfer program ignored eligibility criteria and directed benefits to their relatives or friends instead. Other eligible households were not given any assistance. “We protested at the chief’s office because other people were receiving support while we weren’t,” stated a Nairobi schoolteacher who lost her job during lockdown and struggled with feeding her four school-age kids.
The risk of corruption has been increased by inadequate oversight over funds lent for Covid-19 response by international financial institutions, such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Human Rights Watch’s investigation into the anticorruption requirements for emergency loans given to Cameroon, Nigeria, Ecuador, and Egypt found that governments did not disclose enough information about how they spent IMF funds.
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Under international human rights law, governments have an obligation to fulfill the right to an adequate standard of living, including the rights to food, water, and adequate housing, and the right to social security, which are also recognized as entitlements under African human rights law. Social security is a right that requires countries to provide benefits for people who need them, such as healthcare, old age, childlessness, and other benefits, even during times of economic crisis.
“For many African governments, the Covid-19 pandemic was a wake-up call that investing in social protection systems is vital not only to ensure that people have access to food and other basic goods but also to their country’s economic resilience,” Segun said. Segun stated that the challenge now is to expand and improve the temporary measures to create robust and transparent programs that will permanently safeguard people’s rights to a decent standard of living .
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