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Health Equity in Africa

COVID-19 Response Must Accommodate Migrants and Refugees

COVID-19 Response Must Accommodate Migrants and Refugees

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that health is indeed an aggregate indicator of the nation’s well-being and security. The virus is now present in African countries and although its spread has so far been slow compared to that in European countries, it poses a deep threat to African societies. South Africa has recorded the highest number of COVID-19 cases on the African continent and, due to the exponential increase in the number of cases, it was also one of the first African countries to put in place a lockdown and other restrictive measures to try and reduce the number of new infections. South Africa also happens to be a regional migration hub with an estimate of 4,2 million migrants, primarily from neighbouring countries.

The lockdown has impacted on the social and economic activities of the nation and it has made visible the large gap between the have and the have nots. Since the lockdown, the low income earning South African households, informal traders and small businesses have been greatly affected. Most migrant and refugees have shared the same predicament, and the COVID-19 pandemic has worsened their existing challenges and vulnerabilities. Research has shown that most migrant and refugees work in the informal sector and they live on an income per day basis.

The lockdown has halted all informal economic activities and this has presented a number of issues for migrants and refugees including food insecurity and being unable to afford to pay monthly rentals and bills. Even though the South African government has put in place relief mechanisms to assist small and informal businesses and the most vulnerable amongst the population, these mechanisms apply to South African citizens only. Food parcels are currently only provided to citizens. Migrants and refugees have been excluded, leaving them stranded with no form of income or support. It has been left to civil society and NGOs to try and provide what support they can in these challenging times.

Unfortunately for migrant and refugee women their vulnerabilities have been worsened as they may be exposed to increased gender-based violence during the lockdown period. The lockdown regulations have required people to self-isolate and remain in their homes. However, homes are also sites of abuse and violence and during the current crisis, stress over the uncertainty of sustainable future livelihoods can increase domestic violence. At the same time, services to support survivors are being disrupted and, in some cases, made inaccessible.

The South African Police Services reports during the first week of lockdown revealed that there was a sharp increase in the number of cases of gender-based violence that were reported. Research has shown that most migrant and refugee women do not report cases of abuse and domestic violence due to fear of police authorities and during this lockdown period, they are even more at risk in confined spaces with their perpetrators.

The social and economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in South Africa and the world over has created an unprecedented crisis. While the efforts of the government to provide food and economic relief to vulnerable citizens are commendable it is also important for the South African national response plans to include support for migrants and refugees, and to put women at the center of this response. In this time of crisis, we need to move beyond distinctions and discriminations based on nationality and citizenship, and ensure that all those living in South Africa have the means to survive.


Dr Marcia Mutambara is a postdoctoral fellow at HEARD.

Dr Mutambara wishes to acknowledge the critical insights and feedback from Ms Yasmin Rajah, Director of Refugee Social Services, in an earlier version of the commentary. RSS is  a Durban-based, registered not for profit organization providing social services primarily for refugees and asylum seekers in the province of KwaZulu-Natal and are currently collaborating with HEARD on research investigating gender-based violence amongst migrant and refugee women.