Côte d’Ivoire and COVID-19: how a political crisis can jeopardize an effective pandemic response

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Unlike its neighbors in West Africa, Cote d’Ivoire was remarkably able to completely stave off the 2014 Ebola pandemic through a strong response rooted in factual scientific information and a strong health care system/campaigns/networks. So far, it has done the same to contain the COVID-19 pandemic, but now an unraveling political crisis threatens to completely derail its success. 

Despite catastrophic projections, the COVID crisis has not yet exploded in Africa in the way that it has previously in China, Western Europe and the USA. This might be a temporary feat, but we have to acknowledge that this may be due to strong previous experiences in managing health crises, either as permanent threats (Malaria, Yellow fever, HIV/AIDS) or as temporary urgent crises (Ebola in West Africa, 2014-2015). 

It’s too early to see if the African continent successfully contained the virus, especially as health systems face significant challenges, notably in terms of testing. But already, the negative impact of the virus has been noticed on the civic dialogue: some governments use the pretext of fighting COVID-19 to curb civil liberties and limit civilian space. In many countries, there is an increasing polarization that muzzles civic freedoms, which destroys trust between government, opposition, civil society, and citizens. 

Trust has a significant impact in response against a pandemic, especially when it involves the entire community like it was pointed out on Liberia’s Ebola pandemic. Involving all stakeholders, from top health advisors to local customary chiefs has proven to be an efficient strategy, especially when it’s community-centered and boosting social capital. Several studies highlight the role of trust in public institutions also for effective COVID-19 response.

In several countries, notably South Africa and Algeria, attacks on civic dialogue are undermining trust. In Côte d’Ivoire, COVID-19 becomes a pretext for increasing authoritarian measures and growing polarization. The country is now stuck in a spiral: pre-existing authoritarian tendencies are being exacerbated with responses to the pandemic. In the process, increasing distrust threatens a stellar record of fighting infectious diseases and one of the most robust health systems in Sub-Saharan Africa. This article discusses how a political crisis nurturing mistrust can undermine a proven national strategy, and how an epidemic brings a country closer to its third electoral crisis in two decades. 

The Ivorian health system and the Ebola legacy

Côte d’Ivoire is a top scorer in our Africa Integrity Indicators research for the efficiency of its health campaign and pandemic prevention. Its answer to Ebola is a good example of its strengths and weaknesses. While sharing borders with Liberia and Guinea, two of the worst-hit countries of the 2014-2015 epidemic, Côte d’Ivoire remarkably did not report a single case. 

The country has an extensive network of public community-based dispensaries, as well as several university hospitals and medical schools, which contrast with its neighbors with weaker systems. This is not a perfect system as it faces acute shortages, as I have reported. But it had a strong scientific approach with factual evidence and numbers; hand-washing stations in all public buildings, large-scale simulations around the country to prepare local communities to a real emergency, and rigorous health checks in airports.

Côte d’Ivoire’s success story could have been luck. At the time, I was a reporter based in Abidjan, and I did not believe in the absence of cases, especially in the West, where borders with Liberia are porous and strong community resentment remains following some of the most violent inter-community clashes during the 2010-2011 post-electoral crisis. In this area, there was no trust in the government, but inhabitants followed the lead of local health practitioners on basic protection rules and how to handle possible carriers crossing the borders. 

In Côte d’Ivoire, despite having a government perceived as illegitimate at that time, local leaders and health providers were able to sustain community-centered answers based on trust, and relay the apolitical message of the national experts. 

Côte d’Ivoire’s COVID-19 response

So far, Côte d’Ivoire has shown that it can deliver a quick, efficient and scientific answer to the global COVID-19 pandemic.

It was the first African country to test suspected cases in January and has multiplied testing until its first confirmed case on March 11th. It now has several testing centers around the country, as well as dedicated sites to treat and quarantine patients.  It also reactivated systematic sanitary checks at the airport, using procedures implemented during the Ebola crisis as early as February, much before the US. A strong communication strategy explaining the pandemic to citizens also followed. 

Like several African countries, Côte d’Ivoire has not opted for a restrictive quarantine, believing that threatening people’s livelihood might not be an effective measure. It thus imposed measures to restrain population movement: closure of bars and restaurants, limitation of inter-regional circulation, and a curfew. The government also imposed the use of face masks, while opting for distributing masks rather than criminalizing citizens without one.

But all these are endangered as Côte d’Ivoire is missing an important strength of prior health crisis responses: public trust.

And through our Africa Integrity Indicators and other Global Integrity programs, we also know how much political dynamics can impact the quality of public services and other social outcomes, even in countries with all the “right” forms of governance systems and laws on the books. 

The 2014-2015 Ebola crisis happened in a moment of lull in the political turmoil that has brought several violent episodes since 1999. The latest, the 2010-2011 post-electoral crisis, caused over 3,000 deaths. The COVID-19 crisis happens ahead of a presidential campaign set for October 2020. While not being a candidate, incumbent President Alassane Ouattara has pushed in the last months for several controversial policies, including unpopular constitutional reforms, that have limited political dialogue and has strengthened the president’s powers, including pressing charges of embezzlement against potential presidential candidate Guillaume Soro. Everything is set for a violent clash between the three main political parties.

Covid-19 has allowed the government to push several measures that are perceived as instrumentalizing the pandemic to pursue its political agenda. The most important one is likely to be the postponement of the elections, on which opposition parties have not been consulted about yet, and likely to lead to a deterioration of an already worsening political dialogue. Most of these policies are common sense during a pandemic. But the government, rather than choosing a consensual approach, has decided to take a go-alone that limits civic discussion.

The government aggressively enforces the curfew. Opposition strongholds are the biggest police targets. The growing repression is detrimental to building the trust necessary to fight fake news in communities that do not trust the current government.

The government is not the only one to instrumentalize the crisis.  On April 6th, protesters destroyed a community testing center in construction in Yopougon, an area where former president Laurent Gbagbo, whose fate is still in limbo at the International Criminal Court, is popular. The protest was fueled by a politically charged disinformation campaign that framed the government as sending the virus to the neighborhood. 

This testing site was also convenient in curtailing political mobilization, as it was on the Place Ficgayo, where the opposition holds its rallies. It was also a way to shut down the opposition on the appearance of doing good. 

 

A Facebook post by the Cybercrime police on an arrest for spreading fake news.

While testing centers have been accepted since then, rumors and fake news remain prevalent, including a debunked conspiracy theory about the intentions of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. In Bangolo, a small town of Western Côte d’Ivoire and another opposition stronghold, locals have blocked essential medical supplies on April 7th, from fear of contamination. The solution of the government: more arrests and repression.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Amadou Gon Coulibaly has been flown to France on May 4th, officially for routine health tests for several weeks. While the country faces a significant health crisis, this sends several wrong messages about privilege and inequality when health resources are limited. He is also the presidential candidate dubbed by the incumbent president.

In all this, there has been an increasing political mistrust. Tensions were already vivid before the COVID-19. Rather than mitigating these and building trust, the government has fueled tension and blocked any discussion with the opposition. 

So far, Côte d’Ivoire, with only 30 deaths as of May 27th, has shown that its scientific answer was strong enough to limit the virus propagation. Although, the incapacity of the government to engage in a meaningful dialogue with the opposition, without turning to repression, has increased distrust from an important part of the population. Meanwhile, the opposition, from which a fringe was already eager to propagate conspiracy theories, has found a rallying point against the government by exacerbating fears and directly attacking the health authorities’ efforts. 

COVID-19 is not responsible for the current political crisis, it simply exacerbates existing dynamics. But while political actors are mostly concerned about scoring points in a highly polarizing situation, mistrust distorts messages on what needs to be done to halt the pandemic. And, in the end, this could severely jeopardize the country’s thus-far effective response to mitigating suffering from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Marc-André Boisvert
Africa Integrity Indicators Project Staff

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