Most households in Africa received no support despite many African governments introducing measures such as cash transfers and food assistance programs to combat rising poverty and hunger brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, a global rights group said on Tuesday.
The pandemic highlighted the need for African governments “to strengthen social protection systems” as, according to World Bank estimates, the crisis push 29 million more Africans into extreme poverty by the end of this year, according to a report by Human Rights Watch (HRW).
Some countries have discontinued the assistance programs, leaving thousands helpless and suffering.
“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 HRW.
“African governments should urgently invest in the social protection systems needed to ensure that Africans can endure the pandemic’s devastating economic impact with dignity.”
Between March 2020 and August 2021, HRW interviewed more than 270 people in Cameroon, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, and Uganda.
In Kenya and Nigeria, researchers “documented job losses, falling income, and widespread hunger among people living in poverty in Nairobi and Lagos,” the report said.
There was also a spike in violence against women in Kenya during COVID-19 lockdowns and curfews, it added.
“In Ghana and Uganda, researchers examined an increase in child labor due to the pandemic. 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,” read the report.
HRW also found evidence of corruption and how it deprived deserving people of assistance in Kenya and Nigeria.
“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.
“Now the challenge is to improve and expand the temporary measures introduced to build robust and transparent programs that will permanently protect people's right to an adequate standard of living.”
Authorities respond to HRW report
Cameroon has distributed “a lot of money to support businesses” as they deal with the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, a Finance Ministry official told Anadolu Agency.
“A lot of money has been deployed to support businesses. Some of it was sent to the Small and Medium Enterprises Ministry and some of it was managed directly by the general budget section of the Finance Ministry,” said Adjomo Gedeon, head of communications at the ministry.
“For large companies, it was managed by the General Budget Directorate. In addition to the direct assistance that the state provided to companies, there were very significant tax breaks. The funds were indeed deployed, and I am one of the beneficiaries because I have a company,” he explained.
The HRW report had testimony from a hotel secretary in Cameroon’s southwestern port city of Douala, who claimed that they had received no support from the state.
Gedeon insisted that the money earmarked to help businesses have been “partly disbursed and the rest is still due to given out.”
“Payments have already been made to some companies in the hotel sector,” he said.
In Uganda, Prime Minister Robinah Nabbanja asserted that authorities are cracking down on people accused of corruption and misuse of COVID-19 funds.
“We are not here to joke with people who play with public funds. All those who misappropriated COVID-19 relief funds have to be arrested and brought to book,” she told Anadolu Agency, adding that she has personally ordered the arrest of four senior officials in her office.
Edith Nakalema, head of the Ugandan government’s anti-corruption unit, said President Yoweri Museveni has ordered strict action against anyone found to be involved in embezzling funds.
“We have arrested some people who misappropriated COVID-19 relief funds. We are looking for others who are on the run,” she said, vowing that the government “will leave no stone unturned.”
In Nigeria, authorities, and officials, including the president’s special media adviser Femi Adesina, did not respond despite repeated attempts.
The same was the case with Kenya’s Interior Ministry and Health Ministry, while Ghana’s Information Ministry and Gender, Children and Social Protection Ministry also did not comment by the time this report was filed.
*Aurore Bonny from Cameroon and Godfrey Olukya from Uganda contributed to this report./aa