The Sahel Partially Reopens After COVID-Related Lockdowns

From everything I’ve read and heard, the Sahel never completely locked down in the face of COVID-19 – closures of borders and institutions were always partial and difficult to enforce, some measures were walked back relatively quickly, and authorities complained about citizens’ non-compliance with directives and recommendations. These difficulties with implementation and enforcement obviously relate to the weak capacities of Sahelien states and to ordinary people’s very understandable needs to keep working and moving amid economic precarity and, for many, actual or looming food insecurity.

Although lockdown was never total, there were some sweeping measures implemented, and the economic impact of even partial lockdowns was intense. (I’m not trying to say that lockdown measures were a mistake, just noting the secondary impacts.)

The Sahel, and particularly Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso, are now in a reopening phase. Mali reopened air borders on July 25 and land borders on July 31; Niger reopened its air borders on August 1, and Burkina Faso reopened its two principal airports on August 1. In all countries, there are restrictions on passengers, such as the requirement for passengers to present fresh test results (less than 72 hours old) in Niger.

I think there are a few factors driving the reopenings:

  1. Official case counts are relatively low – as of August 10, Mali had 2,567, Niger had 1,158, and Burkina Faso had 1,175. Not just the overall numbers but also the rates of increase are low. If you follow journalists and analysts who post the daily case counts for those three countries on Twitter (such as Studio Tamani for Mali, Mamane Kaka Touda for Niger, and Dieudonné Lankoande for Burkina Faso), you’ll see that many days go by with fewer than ten new cases reported. Now, are there many cases going under the radar? I imagine so. Yet I have not seen reports of mass excess deaths – in fact, the death toll has (thankfully) been much lower for the Sahel so far than what I initially expected. All this may give authorities confidence to proceed with phased reopenings.
  2. Relatedly, authorities may be shifting from viewing COVID-19 as a short-term crisis to a long-term but ultimately manageable problem. *By that logic,* it makes sense to keep reopening step by step until and unless there is a dramatic spike in recorded cases.
  3. Political and media attention has decisively turned to other stories, trends, and issues. The M5-RFP protest movement in Mali and the attendant institutional shakeups, the defense procurement scandal in Niger, the approaching presidential elections in Niger and Burkina Faso, the violence (particularly in the tri-border area between the three countries), and many other issues are dominating governments’ time now. It’s not that COVID-19 has fallen off the radar entirely, but it’s no longer seen, I think, as the imminent threat it was seen as back in March and April. One of the most telling things, to me, was that when Mali formed its skeleton cabinet of essential ministers back in late July, Health was not one of them.

The Sahelian situation relates to a wider conversation about why Africa has been less affected by the pandemic than any other continent except the Oceania region. I won’t be able to do that conversation justice here, but this piece by George Kibala Bauer remains essential reading. I leave you with one excerpt:

Many “Africa is doing great with COVID” takes are as problematic as the “Africa is hopeless in the face of this crisis” takes. They lack nuance, downplay the complexity of the situation, and most importantly still operate within the Western gaze.

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