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Constitutional Resilience and the COVID-19 Pandemic: Perspectives from Sub-Saharan Africa

By Noah Aschemeier and Maria Zaki

The book launch focused on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in ten (10) African countries: Gambia, Nigeria, Kenya, Zambia, South Sudan, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Mauritius, South Africa, and Ghana. The countries were chosen with the intention of illustrating a diverse set of contexts that each faced its own complexities during the pandemic.

The book launch brought together the editors and chapter authors who shared insights on the impact of government emergency responses to the pandemic on the functions of the executive, the legislature, and the judiciary, as well as the protection of human rights. We took away these themes discussed below:

Governmental roles and actions 

Our major takeaway was that the government’s primary goal should be to address issues before they arise, taking preventative measures rather than trying to solve problems amidst current crises. Yet, unprecedented events like the pandemic require fast and reliable responses. And at the same time, there should be a promise of human rights within these contexts, which forces governments to confront a stream of issues. The pandemic meant there was a need to balance two necessities: public health measures that align with international law and approaches to ensuring public health, including access to resources. Across most of the countries, a weakness in oversight by the legislature and courts, known as checks and balances, meant that the executive had more power and an overwhelming load of responsibilities. Of the ten countries discussed in the book, only two of them (Kenya and South Africa) were somewhat successful in eliciting effective responses with oversight. However, both countries were careful in interfering with public relations to avoid governmental backlash. Most of the countries discussed experienced executive overreach, resulting in the curtailment of fundamental rights such as freedom of movement and assembly.


Implications of government responses 

While many restrictions imposed because of the pandemic might appear minimal, the economic and social implications had massive effects on the development of these countries. A major issue that COVID-19 exposed for African governance is corruption, particularly in terms of abuse, misallocation, and pocketing of external funds by institutions. Another important shift that these countries experienced was the transition from in-person to virtual courtrooms. This increase in technology exposed and increased a lack of trust in the court system, while the absence of institutional safeguards only furthered the challenge. The pandemic complicated the question of accessing justice but also provided a new impetus. 

Economic rights 

An issue prevalent in each country is access to food or food insecurity. Food insecurity increased during the pandemic due in large part to rapid unemployment, leaving already vulnerable societies helpless. This, coupled with governments not responding effectively to such national issues, made access to food, among many other factors, worse. If governments learn from the mistakes made during the Covid-19 pandemic and become more able to effectively combat and respond to pandemics and other outbreaks early on, underlying issues such as food insecurity could be addressed. 

What emerged from the discussion is that all levels of government (local, regional, national, and international) are responsible for implementing public health measures that are in line with international laws. In this context of the COVID-19 pandemic, all constitutional democracies were simultaneously affected by the same problem, a phenomenon that our world has not experienced before. While the world was not adequately prepared for this, it is now our responsibility to prepare for a future with further crises.

Noah Aschemeier is a senior Human Rights Studies major from Findlay, Ohio. As an intern at the Human Rights Center, Noah focuses on further developing the Africa Program, conducting research on both immigration and violent extremism funded by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and assisting with the environmental justice and indigenous rights podcast. He is also involved in the Sustainability Activation Program on campus. His interest centers around environmental policy and practices and how they can be further improved in the future. 

Maria Zaki is currently a senior at the University of Dayton, majoring in International Studies alongside minors in Human Rights, Arabic, and Middle East / Islamic Studies. Her goal is to strive for making long-lasting contributions as a global citizen in an ever-changing world. She highly values linguistics, intercultural communication, and the interconnectivity between our different spheres of life – politics, culture, media, etc. At the Human Rights Center, Maria is working on developing the Africa Program while also conducting research on immigration.

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