A group of market sellers wearing face masks in Kenya.

COVID-19 and mobility, conflict and development

While much has been said about COVID-19 as a leveller – disregarding borders, race, and class – its unfolding in the Horn of Africa (HoA) illustrates the way it overlaps with and exacerbates existing political and social inequalities

to generate impacts that are felt unevenly. Recent REF research brings together key information and analyses on COVID-19 in the HoA, with a focus on how these relate to mobility, conflict and development. It makes evident the complex, overlapping crises and risks faced by the region that move beyond the immediate health impacts of COVID-19. It also sheds light on the expertise and lessons to be learned from within the region.

Lockdowns and restrictions on mobility are exacerbating existing vulnerabilities and leading to negative social, political and economic impacts. For displaced populations, this is particularly concerning: as well as being marginalised by lockdown policies and restrictions on movement – often in camps with inadequate WASH facilities and where social distancing is infeasible – these populations are also at increased risk of being “left behind” by government economic responses such as bailouts and stimulus packages. Humanitarian assistance is increasingly challenging to deliver, with some services rolled back or paused, and concerns raised about availability of food. Existing expertise and lessons from previous crises in the region on delivering humanitarian assistance remotely are now of particular importance.

Lessons and expertise from previous pandemics relating to the importance of trust, transparency and collaboration are also crucial. While concerning evidence is emerging of heavy-handed, top-down measures that marginalise communities and may lead to stigmatisation, there are also positive community-led approaches which should be supported to ensure COVID-19 responses are appropriate to local contexts. Moving from the local to the regional level, the initial impacts of border restrictions and trade have also amplified the need for a collaborative approach between governments.

Responses must also be cognisant of the changing dynamics of remittances. Remittances are a crucial part of coping strategies and of people’s ability to maintain social connections during crises, however as both receivers and senders are affected by COVID-19 new challenges are emerging.

The importance of a gender-inclusive COVID-19 response cannot be overstated. COVID-19 will affect, and be affected by, gender dynamics and this warrants further attention, including around issues of gender-based violence, caring roles, access to health care, and the potential roles for women at the frontline of responses in ways that empower and transform rather than further marginalise.

Key recommendations

There is significant uncertainty about how COVID-19 will play out in the region. However, our research has shown that existing evidence and expertise, as well as lessons from previous pandemics and crises in the region, can inform policy, programmes and future research as COVID-19 unfolds. The following key recommendations are presented in our report:

1. Develop inclusive pandemic responses

Policy and programme responses to COVID-19 must be inclusive and consultative from the outset if they are to be taken up by communities and are to be contextually appropriate. Design and implementation processes should engage communities, not view them as the problem or blame them for their vulnerabilities. Consultations should be extended to refugee and migrant communities, those living in informal settlements and at borderlands, and be cognisant of gender dynamics. Through supporting these kinds of approaches, and building on experiences and expertise from the region in managing previous epidemics, such as HIV/AIDs and Ebola, “a distinctively African doctrine of epidemic mitigation” may emerge.

2. Critically re-evaluate lockdowns and movement restrictions

While lockdowns may “buy time”, health experts warn they can be harmful for vulnerable economies and populations and disincentivise observance of restrictions. As part of developing inclusive and consultative responses to COVID-19, alternatives and variants to lockdown, isolation and restrictions on movement should be explored. These may include shielding vulnerable populations and organising monitoring at the local and household level. They may also recognise and find ways of supporting mobility as a survival mechanism where appropriate. Leaving cities to return to rural communities has long been a coping strategy in the region. While there are significant risks associated with carrying COVID-19 to more fragile areas outside of cities, exploring ways to enable those who are healthy to travel warrants further attention.

3. Recognise COVID-19 as a humanitarian emergency

Responses must factor in the HoA’s overlapping conflict, environmental, and humanitarian challenges. Existing networks and experts focused on conflict-sensitive programming, including remote delivery of services, humanitarian protection, and durable solutions have a wealth of context-specific expertise to be drawn on in collaboration with health experts and communities.

4. Plan and research for longer-term challenges

Governments in the HoA are joining countries globally to implement hasty emergency responses to the pandemic. These responses may bypass established processes, given the rapid pace of the pandemic and its wider socioeconomic impacts. Ongoing attention should be paid to how “temporary” measures continue in the medium to longer term, including around the tracing of citizens, border controls and restrictions on movement, and human rights. Discretionary rules around migration governance warrant further research and analysis over time, and this includes careful planning around which measures are funded.

For many in the region, mobility is key to survival and to a sense of progress in life; the impacts of movement restrictions over the longer term will therefore not be limited to economic precarity, as summarised by Landau:

Where people stop seeing the possibility of predictable futures or progress, forms of rational decision-making and political engagement will take on new meanings… [P]eople who feel robbed of futures are more likely to acquiesce to authoritarianism or support millenarianism that forge enduring, visionary solidarities.

Additional research, as well as programming and funding, will need to remain cognisant of the changing connections between mobility and life-course or sense of progress, both in terms of actual migration behaviours and imagined and perceived futures. How this intersects with the region’s high rates of youth unemployment will also require close attention.

Read our full report: ‘COVID-19 and mobility, conflict and development in the Horn of Africa

Image: World Bank / Sambrian Mbaabu, C.C BY-NC-ND 2.0

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