African countries need to ensure that the health of refugees is protected during the COVID-19 pandemicPosted: 21 June, 2021
Author: Omotunde Enigbokan
Centre for Human Rights, University of Pretoria
The protection of the right to health for refugees in Africa requires urgent attention, especially in this period when evidence shows that new variants of the coronavirus are spreading. As we celebrate World Refugee Day on 20 June 2021, and against the backdrop of the UNHCR’s theme ‘Together we heal, learn and shine’, it is pertinent that we interrogate how African countries are ensuring that the right to health for refugees, is guaranteed. This is particularly important with the development of COVID-19 vaccines worldwide, and in the onset of the administration of these vaccines in Africa.
Challenges faced by refugees in Africa
Existing research underlines the need for heightening refugees’ access to health facilities. Research further shows that refugees have been particularly hard hit by the COVID-19 pandemic in Africa. This situation is further compounded by the fact that many refugees live in overpopulated camps or reception centres, where they lack adequate access to health services, clean water and sanitation. This makes them more vulnerable to contracting COVID-19.
When the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared “a public health emergency of international concern” in the three fragile West African states of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, the walls fast closed on them and their peoples. Flight bans, citizen entry bans and ripple effects on trade have been announced by African countries, as well as globally. So severe have been the restrictions that vital energy and food supplies have dwindled, with riots breaking out in some areas. The affected countries have pleaded with “the world” to not inflict collective punishment on their populations, and indeed future.
These real world events have grounding in probably the most innocuously titled yet powerful treaty in the world. Nope, not the UN Charter, not the Geneva or Vienna Conventions… the International Health Regulations (IHR 2005). Usually, ‘regulations’ is legalese for subsidiary legislation. But these regulations treat probably the most incendiary issues in human society: infectious diseases and legality, if not morality of mitigating actions.
The IHR’s aim to provide maximum protection from the international spread of infectious diseases while causing minimal harm to global travel and commerce. It originates from the 1892 International Sanitary Convention that sought to control the spread of cholera in the Suez Canal, providing for coercive ship inspections and quarantines.
It may well be said that the Achilles-like duality of IHR, its true power and weakness, lies not in legal theory but sheer human behaviour. Infectious diseases are frightening. They compound the unknown and bring out the worst elements of our self-preservation instinct. Prior to the 2005 revision, states like India and Peru sat on critical information about disease outbreaks to avoid the punishing reactions of other states. Given the treatment of Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, one wonders what exactly has changed in the real world.
March 2013 marks ten years of one of the most innovative initiatives established under the auspices of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD). Created in 2003, the main objective of the African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM) is to foster the adoption of standard practices for political stability, sustainable development and economic integration through experience sharing between member states. As a voluntary process open to all members of the African Union, the steps of the APRM process include a country self-assessment, a review mission by the APRM Panel of Eminent Persons, a review of the ensuing Panel report by APRM Member States, and a finalized programme of action (NPoA) – the blueprint for development agreed upon by all stakeholders. These NPoAs are critical to identifying development challenges, and laying the foundation for legal and policy changes.
As of January 2013, the APRM boasts a membership of 35 States, with Tunisia and Chad as the newest members. Yet, the APRM has been plagued by financial and logistical challenges, stalled peer reviews and an occasionally negative public perception. In this piece, I highlight how a holistic approach to critiquing the APRM sheds light on some of the positive contributions the mechanism has made to development in Africa, and also illuminates the path for the next ten years.
Female genital mutilation (FGM) is one of the cultural practises embedded amongst the Venda community of north-east of South Africa. Eight weeks or less after childbirth, Venda women undergo a traditional ceremony called muthuso. Muthuso is a process of cutting the vaginal flesh of the mother by a traditional healer. The flesh is mixed with black powder and oil and applied on the child’s head to prevent goni. Goni has been described as a swelling on the back of a child’s head. The Venda people believe that goni can only be cured using the vaginal flesh of the child’s mother. Women who experienced FGM stated that they bleed excessively after the ceremony. Moreover, the women stated that there is no postnatal care in Venda. Consequently, the women use traditional medicine and sometimes this leads to death because of substandard treatment.