Transnational circulation, one of the key elements in managing the coronavirus crisis in Africa

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Burundi closed its borders early on due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Here, Burundians upon their return from the DRC on March 1, 2020.
Burundi closed its borders early on due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Here, Burundians upon their return from the DRC on March 1, 2020. Onesphore Nibigira / AFP

The spatial distribution of mobility (map n ° 1) reflects the historicity and the dynamics of the migratory systems in which the different regions of Africa participate and the anchoring of the continent in globalization.

Origin of the first cases of Covid-19 diagnosed in Africa.
Origin of the first cases of Covid-19 diagnosed in Africa. WHO, Vidal, Ceped

Maps 1 and 2 represent the geographic origin of the first cases of Covid-19 in Africa and the reasons for displacement of people diagnosed with positive.

All the first cases detected in African countries share a common characteristic: it is a person who recently entered the national territory. She was diagnosed either at the airport upon arrival or at a health center a few days later.

First cases of Covid-19 in Africa and international migration.
First cases of Covid-19 in Africa and international migration. WHO, Vidal, Ceped

Most of these travelers tested positive after staying outside of Africa for business, family or religious reasons. Added to this are tourists and foreign residents who have come to work.

Few of the first cases of Covid-19 result from intra-African transmission. The few examples listed have followed the routes taken by road hauliers and traders.

Complexity of routes

More modestly, the circulation of personnel from national health structures and international agencies has also contributed to the spread of the virus within Africa. In Djibouti, two doctors from Egypt resumed their consultations at the hospital without being tested beforehand. In Guinea-Bissau, one of the first two cases is a United Nations official from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The first cases of Covid-19 also highlight the diversity of mobility between African countries: in Ethiopia, it is a Japanese from Burkina Faso, and in Chad, a Moroccan citizen living in N’Djamena (Chad ) back from a trip to Douala (Cameroon).

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The complexity of the routes followed by those diagnosed positive sometimes makes it difficult to identify the place of contamination: in Togo, the first case of Covid-19 is a shopkeeper residing in Lomé, recently returned after having stayed successively in Benin, in Germany, in France and Turkey. In Libya, the patient entered the territory from Tunisia but was returning from a pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia.

In some countries, several people have been detected simultaneously, as in Burundi where the first cases are two nationals, returning respectively from Rwanda and Dubai (United Arab Emirates).

Strong preventive measures

The origin of the first cases of Covid-19 in Africa therefore recalls the diversity of the logics of mobility and the plurality of population groups which carry them on the African continent. These transnational circulations, articulated with transcontinental mobility, favored exchanges with the main centers of the epidemic, located in Asia, Europe and North America.

African states have taken strong preventive measures. Equatorial Guinea is the first African country to apply these measures when a case of Covid-19 was detected on its soil on March 12. The African countries most affected by the epidemic when their borders were closed had fewer than 100 cases. Only Egypt was approaching 200 (Map 3).

Covid-19 cases confirmed when the borders of African countries are closed.
Covid-19 cases confirmed when the borders of African countries are closed. WHO, Vidal, Ceped

Globally, more than half of African countries have ordered their borders closed while less than ten cases have been detected on their territory. A total of fifteen countries have made this decision even before the detection of a first Covid-19 case.

In comparison, Western countries like Italy, France and the United States have taken similar action when thousands of cases have already been detected on their soil.

The responsiveness of African states was therefore exemplary, especially since the control of migratory exchanges constitutes a real challenge. Indeed, regional circulation is strongly anchored in the way of life of populations and cross-border migrations facilitated by the permeability of land and maritime borders.

Vulnerabilities and stigmatizations

Thus, in ten days (from March 16 to March 26), with the exception of Liberia, all the member countries of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) closed their borders.

Since its creation in 1979, this area of ​​free movement has never experienced such a situation. These restrictions have created difficulties, tensions and dramatic situations, particularly for migrants. More than 2,500 migrants in transit in Niger, Burkina Faso, Mali and Chad have been blocked. Some had to be rescued in the middle of the desert.

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In the city of Dakhla (Western Sahara), violent clashes took place between sub-Saharan migrants during food distributions. In Arlit, in the north of Niger, a revolt broke out in a migrant camp because of the deplorable living conditions. On social media, migrants stranded in Tunisia, after fleeing Libya, have multiplied the calls for help. “Without the solidarity of the Tunisians who came to give us some food, I would have been dead”, confides a young Congolese.

The Covid-19 epidemic has also exacerbated vulnerabilities and stigma. In Nador (Morocco), the camps for migrants in transit have been destroyed; in Bamako (Mali), an IDP camp was destroyed by an accidental fire; and in Malawi, two Mozambicans accused of spreading the virus were beaten to death.

Clandestine return chains

The return of migrants to their country of origin has also been hindered. [De jeunes Marocains bloqués] in the Spanish cities of Sebta and Melilla managed to reach their country by taking the clandestine routes usually used in the opposite direction.

Worse, clandestine return channels have been set up from Spain for undocumented immigrants who wanted to return to Morocco. The place in the boats was negotiated at more than 5,000 euros, five times the same trip in reverse.

Further south, West African migrants had to wait several days to cross the border between Morocco and Mauritania. Senegalese emigrants, including three women, from Spain, experienced the same mishap on the border between Mauritania and Senegal where they were then confined in a “Health center, heavily guarded by security forces”.

Between Togo and Ghana, controls are applied with the same rigor. Several Ghanaian nationals were arrested at the border. They returned from the United Kingdom, the United Arab Emirates, South Africa or the United States via Lomé airport.

Avoid the disaster scenario

Cross-border mobility has not escaped these restrictions: 410 pirogues which provided the shuttle between Senegal and Mauritania were arrested by the police. Comparable situations have been observed on the waterways that link Cameroon to Nigeria. And South Africa has announced the construction of a 40-kilometer fence along the border with Zimbabwe to limit daily trade between the two countries.

The fishing migrations themselves have been disrupted: in Senegal, the fishermen of Yarakh, near Dakar, and those of Elinkine, in Casamance, opposed the landing of their colleagues from other countries of the sub-region (Ghana, Guinea-Bissau), and usually employed by Senegalese shipowners.

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Africa is a continent of intense mobility. At the start of the pandemic, it was therefore legitimate to fear the rapid spread of Covid-19. However, overall, the vigilance of the authorities and the responsibility of the populations have made it possible to considerably reduce intra-African migration. In this sense, it is significant that Côte d’Ivoire, the first country of immigration to Africa, is not today one of the most affected countries.

The uneven development of the number of Covid-19 cases on the African continent therefore seems more closely linked to the reactivity of States after the detection of the first Covid-19 case on their soil and to the internal management of the epidemic (in particular the measures regulating or limiting travel between regions, the closure of cities), than international mobility (“Imported cases”).

The closing of the borders of African countries therefore logically limited the distribution of Covid-19 in Africa. This demanding measure for the populations, in particular for those living on cross-border exchanges, can nevertheless be considered as one of the measures which participated to avoid, until now, the disaster scenario initially announced by certain specialists and institutions, and taken up again. by the media.

Véronique Petit is a professor of demography at the Research Institute for Development (IRD).

Nelly robin is a geography researcher at the Research Institute for Development (IRD).

This article was first published on the site The Conversation.

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