Statement from Amnesty International USA on the COVID-19 Crisis in Africa
For the House Africa Subcommittee
March 17, 2021
Prepared by Adotei Akwei, Dep. Director Advocacy and Government Relations, AIUSA
Chairwoman Bass, Ranking Member Smith and member of the subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, and Global Human Rights, on behalf of the 10 million members, supporters and activists of Amnesty International around the world, I would like to submit this statement for the record.
Amnesty International is a global human rights organization, launched in 1961. We advocate for the rights of all as enumerated by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international recognized human rights standards.
Chairwoman Bass, Ranking Member Smith, thank you for holding this hearing to discuss the status of the COVID-19 pandemic in Africa. If Africa, and for that matter the global community, are going to beat the pandemic it will require addressing all of its facets: the economic, political and social human rights as well as the immediate health crisis. Failing to address any of these areas will impact our ability to successfully address the others.
The Health Crisis
This hearing takes place at a critical moment in the battle with the COVID-19 pandemic. While we are not completely out of the woods, the development and distribution of vaccines over the first quarter of 2021 has marked what many believe is the turning of the tide in the effort to defeat the pandemic.
Unfortunately, this hope, as well as the vaccines, have not reached many parts of the world, including numerous countries in Africa. Wealthier countries and pharmaceutical companies are behaving in a manner that will continue to constrict the supply of vaccines and hinder access to those vaccines for people in lower- and middle-income countries.
Amnesty International has found that “rich countries have bought up over half of the world’s vaccine supply, even though they represent just 16 per cent of the world’s population. The same countries have administered over 60% of the world’s doses so far, while over 100 countries are yet to vaccinate a single person”. This “vaccine nationalism” flies in the face of two critical lessons the virus has painfully taught us: (i) that we are only as safe as the least secure of us is; and (ii) that the virus does not respect borders or geography. The longer it takes to vaccinate people, the greater the risk the virus will mutate and become immune from the drugs we are hoping will protect us.
The United States must support a temporary waiver of the World Trade Organization TRIPs agreement to allow vaccines to be produced in the quantity and speed that is needed.
The Economic Crisis
Africa’s COVID-19 economic crisis could outlive the health one. Analysis suggest that economic growth in Africa will be decimated by the toll of the regional and global slowdown caused by the pandemic. Economic growth is expected to be halved as a result of drops in exports, and as foreign investment and government revenues dry up. Africa, which is home to the largest number of people living in poverty, will be the most impacted by a dramatic increase in people living in extreme poverty as a result of the pandemic.
The World Bank and the UN reported that in 2020 alone, between 71-100 million people globally would be pushed in to extreme poverty. Even more alarmingly, earlier this month, the UN Economic Commission for Africa reported that if the economic cost of the pandemic were not contained in 2021, the combination of COVID-19 and economic trends prior to the pandemic’s outbreak could result 514 million Africans living in extreme poverty.
The United States and the global community must help Africa weather the economic crisis and build back better financially. This help must include multilateral and bilateral debt relief beyond the current 2021 debt moratorium, and the International Monetary Fund issuing US$2 trillion in Special Drawing Rights (SDRS).
The Human Rights Crisis
Respect for human rights has been eroded as a result of COVID-19. The ability of the security forces to protect and maintain the rule of law in a manner that adheres to international and regional standards has been undermined. In 2020, police and military were videotaped beating individuals for violating shelter in place restrictions. Persons arbitrarily detained now face an even higher risk of indefinite detention with courts being closed, and also face increased risk of exposure to COVID-19 due to chronic overcrowding of prisons across the continent.
Another key area that must be addressed is protecting and promoting access to information. Information about how to best avoid catching the virus. Information about where resources and support to survive having the virus can be acquired could be the difference between life and death. At the same time, information about what governments are doing, what they are not doing and whether resources are being allocated fairly will all be essential to containing the virus. The record regarding African governments and access to information is not encouraging. While there are safeguards on access to information at the regional level, too many African governments have laws that violate or restrict access to information or ignore their regional obligations by restricting freedom of expression. Governments across the continent regularly attack and seek to undermine the independent media, human rights groups, and any voices found to be critical of the government.
The United States and other countries providing assistance to African governments must stress the need for recipient governments to comply with and uphold international and regional human rights standards. We also urge donor governments to improve transparency around their assistance, ideally specifying the amount and kind of assistance they are providing to ensure the general public is informed regarding the response to the COVID-19 pandemic and support their governments are receiving.
People Falling Through the Cracks of the COVID-19 Response
Members of the subcommittee, another issue that needs to be brought into the spotlight is the millions of people who are not being adequately addressed in vaccination efforts. These people include refugees and incarcerated persons, who due to their living conditions, remain at high risk of contracting COVID-19, and if they are not protected, could be a vector for the continued spread of mutations of the virus.
The Incarcerated Persons COVID-19 Crisis
On March 18 Amnesty will be releasing a report entitled Forgotten Behind Bars: CIOVID-19 and Prisons. The report highlights how prisons and other detention facilities are “systemic threats to health due to overcrowding and poor sanitary conditions.” Amnesty estimates that there are over 11 million people worldwide being held in prisons, serving prison sentences or awaiting trial. People in detention are at heightened risk from COVID-19 due to a number of interlinked systemic factors. Firstly, prisoners often have a greater underlying burden of disease and worse health conditions than the general population. Secondly, prisons and other places of detention tend to have a high prevalence of diseases, infections and pathogens due to poor living conditions. Thirdly, physical distancing is often difficult to achieve in prisons. Finally, only limited health care may be available to those in detention.
The report finds “worrying patterns of COVID-19 infections in prisons across all regions”. In the USA for example, the mortality rate in prisons was twice as high as that for the general public in August 2020, according to a report by the National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice. The full scale of infections and deaths in prisons is hard to assess, as governments have failed to collate and publicly provide up to date and reliable information.
As of September 2020, few of the countries monitored by Amnesty International had publicly available official data on rates of testing, positive cases and deaths among detainees, and an even smaller group of states provided data disaggregated by age, gender, ethnicity, and pre-existing medical conditions. There have even been a few reports of authorities persecuting individuals publishing information related to the situation of COVID-19 in prisons. Reliable data is critical for informed policy making in responding to COVID-19.
Accurately collating and analyzing data on infections and deaths of individuals deprived of liberty and making it promptly available is central to any infection prevention and control efforts. It is also important that any data collected on incarcerated populations is disaggregated to ensure that at-risk subpopulations are identified and adequate protective measures are taken.
The pandemic has laid bare years of underinvestment and neglect of health services in prisons. Irrespective of the economic status of the state, prison authorities have generally been unable to cope with the increased demand for preventive health measures and medical treatment of prisoners. Available information showed acute shortages of testing capacity, practices inconsistent with public health guidance and concerning examples of discriminatory and punitive measures, especially in the early phases of the spread of COVID-19. Our research also found instances where COVID-19 tests were not readily accessible to prison staff, either.
Lack of preventive and protective measures in detention centers is another key finding in the report. The UN Human Rights Committee has emphasized that “treating all persons deprived of their liberty with humanity and with respect for their dignity is a fundamental and universally applicable rule” which “cannot be dependent on the material resources available in the state party”. As the risk of contagion endangers the health and life of the persons deprived of their liberty, it is states’ responsibility to protect those who are in their care from falling sick to COVID-19, including through the provision of adequate personal protective equipment (PPE).
Tackling overcrowding also remains a big challenge. Many countries, including in Africa, have released prisoners through measures such as pardons, commutations, temporary suspension of sentences, conditional, temporary, or supervised releases, transfers into home confinement, and identification and implementation of alternatives for accommodation and monitoring, such as for prisoners towards the end of their sentences. According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), globally there was an unprecedented wave of prisoner releases in 2020, with more than 600,000 prisoners in more than 100 countries released as of July 2020. These were mostly individuals with preexisting health conditions, those whose release would not result in compromising public safety, and those approaching the end of their sentence. Despite such encouraging steps, Amnesty International’s research indicates that the rates of release remained insufficient to address the magnitude of the risk.
Countries including Egypt and the Democratic Republic of the Congo continue to have high levels of prison overcrowding, and their governments have failed to address the concern adequately within the context of COVID-19. There have been growing calls from UN and regional human rights bodies and other intergovernmental agencies and public health experts for governments to take urgent measures to reduce overcrowding in prisons as part of their response to COVID-19 and as part of their obligations to protect the rights to health, life, and physical and mental integrity.
The lack of clarity about vaccination plans, policies, and treatment of incarcerated populations is also a pressing concern. While, encouragingly, the governments of some countries have already adopted policies that put prison populations and staff among the priority groups to receive vaccines, we found that many others, including those of high-income countries, either are silent or remain unclear on their plans.
Our report also documented that protests and unrest that occurred in prisons in the context of COVID-19 have often been attributed to the introduction of restrictive measures like the suspension of prison visits or poor health and living conditions. Protests in Nigeria for example resulted in death or injury of prisoners and prison staff or prisoner escapes.
Amnesty International documented a number of human rights violations in the context of governments’ response to suppress COVID-19-related protests and unrest, including excessive use of force (such as the use of live ammunition and tear gas). As a result, scores have been killed and hundreds injured and many more have been subjected to prolonged incommunicado detention, punitive isolation and denial of access to adequate medical treatment.
In Sierra Leone in April 2020 for example, prison guards used live ammunition to disperse a riot in Freetown’s central prison, killing 31 people, including one prison officer, and leaving dozens of people injured. Twelve inmates died from gunshot wounds. Prisoners were reportedly protesting about overcrowding and restrictive measures to tackle COVID-19, including the prohibition of family visits.
The Refugee COVID-19 Crisis
In June 2020, the African center for Strategic Studies reported that Africa has 294 million forcibly displaced persons, including refugees, refugee-like, returned refugees, IDPs, returned IDPs, asylum seekers, stateless, and others of concern. This would constitute the 18th largest country in Africa by population. Failing to treat and protect this population from the COVID-19 pandemic would not only violate the obligations the global community has to those people, but it would also constitute a significant health risk to the rest of the African people and the entire global population. It also does not take much to see how this could also contribute to increased stigmatization and discrimination against IDP and refugees.
African governments and people throughout Africa have shown resilience to the pandemic. Local initiatives in several countries to produce testing kits and other PPEs have shown that a lack of will or creativity is not the issue. They need resources and support. COVID-19 has also shown us that we either defeat the pandemic together or we face a world where certain parts of global community face new strains of the virus every year and the rest of the world remains at risk of new infections. It is not the right thing or the smart thing to do.
The United States must be a leader for a better global response that the world needs it to be.
Amnesty International urges Congress and the Biden administration to:
- Support a temporary waiver of the World Trade Organization TRIPs agreement to allow vaccines to be produced in the quantity and speed that is needed.
- Support the extension of multilateral and bilateral debt relief beyond the current 2021 debt moratorium.
- Support the International Monetary Fund issuing US$2 trillion in Special Drawing Rights (SDRS).
- Ensure a robust International Affairs Budget to allow the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and other U.S. bilateral initiatives like PEPFAR to help African countries respond to the COVID-9 pandemic and build better, stronger healthcare systems.
- Ensure that African governments comply with and uphold international and regional human rights standards and improve transparency around assistance, including specifying the amount and kind of assistance being provided to ensure the general public is informed regarding the response to the COVID-19 pandemic and support their governments are receiving.
Work with African governments to:
- Take comprehensive measures to reduce overcrowding in prisons and thereby reduce the risk of COVID-19 infections and death.
- Undertake legal reforms to address the use of pre-trial detention, especially for minor and non-violent offences. They should explore alternatives to custody, including commutation of sentences, early release and probation, at the pre-trial, trial, sentencing and post-sentencing stages.
- Explore deferring the intake of new arrivals in appropriate cases or converting prison sentences to fines or other non-custodial penalties, including when the nature of the offence committed does not require incarceration.
- Review the need for continued custodial detention and consider alternatives to custody, such as parole and early, conditional, or temporary release, especially when detainees have been convicted of minor offences and do not pose a significant threat to the public.
- Provide for and implement processes in which prisoners can apply for early release due to medical circumstances; failure to do so may amount to a violation of their right to an effective remedy.
- Release older detainees if they do not pose a threat to public safety and have already served a portion of their prison sentence, and consider releasing detainees with underlying medical conditions, including those with a weakened immune system.
- Review custodial sentences for women and girls who are in detention with their dependent children or who are pregnant.
- Ensure the immediate and unconditional release of all prisoners detained solely for the peaceful exercise of their human rights.
- Work with COVAX to ensure that COVID-19 health products are made available and accessible to the maximum number of people at a global level.
- Prevent discrimination against those held in detention when developing vaccination policies and plans, and prioritize the vaccination of prisoners.
- Ensure refugees and IDPs can access social safety nets and health care.
- Ensure refugees are consulted about the response, and that their concerns are taken into account.