The Partnership for Social Accountability Alliance (PSA Alliance) stands in solidarity with the people in Southern Africa and appreciates the swift response announced by various governments to contain the pandemic and the unprecedented crises facing the region. We however urge governments to ensure the response and recovery measures prioritise social accountability and protection of human rights.
Even in the context of a national disaster, governments must remain accountable to the people – they are required by law to explain and justify how existing and diverted public resources as well as international relief funds and private donations are planned and utilised. Transparency is paramount. Plans and budgets as well as financial and performance information must be openly and proactively provided to the public, and innovative spaces for public participation should be established.
While laws governing the management of national disasters provide Ministers with additional powers to issue directives and regulations, government actions must be consistent with national constitutions. All emergency measures must be proportionate, necessary, time-bound and non-discriminatory. Special systems should be put in place to process any complaints of abuse of power, including allegations of corruption and human rights violations.
Likewise, the international and regional agreements to which governments have committed remain in place, including those requiring long-term investment in universal, efficient, quality and gender-responsive public services. COVID-19 is exposing disastrous and tragic gaps in delivery of public services impacting the most marginalised. The crisis has demonstrated the importance of consistent and sufficient public investment and accountable governance of health services, domestic food security, and social protection systems. Women, who form the majority of small-scale food producers, have been at the fore-front of the ongoing HIV pandemic in the region. They will again be called to the frontlines as primary caregivers and health workers who will invariably shoulder the heaviest burden.
The dire reality is that Southern Africa’s health and other public infrastructure to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic is less resourced than that of the countries which have so far been most affected. Italy, which has struggled to contain a high number of recorded cases and deaths of COVID-19, has an annual health expenditure per capita of 3,620 USD per capita, versus Tanzania at 104 USD per capita (2017 data). (WHO 2017 data). Public health systems and facilities in the region are often underfunded by central government, resulting in the shortage of personnel and medicines which undermine their ability to meet the demand for basic health services.
Many countries also suffer from over-burden of external debt, undermining their ability to invest sufficiently in public services. The PSA Alliance supports the African Union’s call for a comprehensive stimulus package, including, deferred payments and the immediate suspension of interest payments on external public and private debt for all African countries, and asks further that such measures be extended until 2022.
PSA Alliance urges governments and international development partners, who are reallocating resources towards the COVID-19 response, to:
- Remove barriers that impede sustained access to sexual and reproductive health (SRH) services during the COVID-19 crisis, including restrictions on movement for people who need critical services such as contraceptives, post abortion care or HIV medicines.
- Ensure continued access to the full range of planned and budgeted health services, including SRH services for adolescents and young people.
- Earmark ample resources to prevent stock-outs of essential medicines including anti-retrovirals (ARVs) and make arrangements to counter trade limitations in commodities due to border closures.
- Prioritise the supply and widespread distribution of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to medical staff.
- Institute heightened safety measures for patients in waiting areas at health centres and facilitate provision of non-restricted COVID-19 screening and testing services by persons living with HIV, tuberculosis or silicosis, and other immune-suppressing conditions.
- Provide free, universal public health including essential services and medicines, prioritising immediate access to vulnerable people,to ensure that reduced income earning opportunities do not prevent them from accessing critical healthcare, including HIV/SRH services.
In the longer term, governments must recognise and invest in social safety mechanisms, including expanding universal social protection, universal cash and food transfers that reduce women and girls’ vulnerability to SRH violations and abuses. Health systems should be strengthened to ensure they are resilient, even within crises, and can sustainably provide relevant, affordable and quality SRH services.
The pandemic comes on the heels of last year’s Cyclones Idai and Kenneth which exposed the region’s lack of disaster preparedness, including governments’ failure to build the necessary resilience among communities as well as provide timely and appropriate information to allow them to take action. Continued climate shocks over the past year, including droughts and flooding across much of the region, have led UN food agencies to warn of impending food shortages for over 45 million people.
The economic challenges already being experienced by many countries in the region are being further deepened by the global downturn caused by COVID-19, and food insecurity will be all the more pronounced as the virus spreads and lockdown measures are tightened. The impact will be felt not only now, but will be long lasting, necessitating national austerity budgets for many years to come. Even more worrying, countries heavily burdened by debt such as Zambia are already warning of the pandemic’s potential to push them into a debt crisis and broader financial collapse.
The PSA Alliance urges governments to consider the following in their COVID-19 responses to ensure uninterrupted food supply and promote long term food security in the region:
- Agriculture provides a livelihood for nearly 70% of SADC’s population with smallholder farmers constituting the majority of producers keeping livestock and growing crops. Governments must ensure food supply is maintained, prioritising procurement from smallholder farmers to local markets, roadside stands and informal shops. Additionally, COVID-19 regulations must consider smallholder farmers and support farm workers to enable them to produce and sell food even when local markets are shut.
- Social protection must be provided to farmers and farm workers who are forced to leave their fields and are not able to take their goods to the market, invariably affecting their immediate household income and their investment in next season’s harvest. Income guarantees for informal workers, migrants, and unemployed are also essential to prevent a human catastrophe.
- SADC and the AU should ensure regional border closures do not disrupt food value chains. While food production and support are considered essential services, other related restrictions will likely cause backlogs at border posts, which will require actions such as the ‘fast lanes’ for maize exports from South Africa to Zimbabwe already being implemented.
- National and SADC grain reserves should be expanded and strengthened to ensure regional food security, particularly in times of crisis; and food processing and storage facilities should be brought closer to farms.
The crisis also provides an opportunity to question the intensive industrial model of agriculture being supported across the region, which has so far failed to significantly improve food security. Long-term investment should instead be directed towards agroecology and supporting the capacity of local farmers to produce food for their communities.
COVID-19 is a critical time for the Southern Africa region, as it is for the rest of the world. With comprehensive, human rights based responses that protect lives and livelihoods by governments we believe people in the region will be able to abide by restrictions placed to contain the pandemic and #flattenthecurve. Likewise, the PSA Alliance calls on SADC governments to act in the spirit of social accountability, strengthening citizens’ faith in the ability of their leaders to protect and serve them in times of crisis.