A Comparative Analysis of COVID-19 Responses and their Effects on Human Rights Protections in East Africa

A Comparative Analysis of COVID-19 Responses and their Effects on Human Rights Protections in East Africa

[Stephen Arthur Lamony is an International Law specialist, ex-Senior Foreign Policy Advisor-Amnesty International and ex-Head of Advocacy and Policy at the global Coalition for the International Criminal Court (CICC).]


The World Health Organization (WHO), published its first situation report on COVID -19 on January 20,  2020. When it reported a case of “pneumonia of unknown cause” on December 31, 2019. A lot has transpired since then. News reports of COVID-19 spreading wildly across the world became prominent in February 2020 and have stayed with us to date. The impact of the virus has been felt profoundly it has changed and will continue to the lives of ordinary citizens worldwide.

This article is a comparative analysis of the human rights and health implications of the response of three East African government’s: Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. The governments of Kenya and Uganda reacted expeditiously with preparedness and response plans for COVID-19, guided by their public health acts and constitutions in the hopes that their efforts would pay off in the long run. In contrast, the government of Tanzania decided not to act in an effort to prioritize its economy.

These different approaches have shown the importance of balanced government policies that protect political and civil, as well as social, cultural and economic rights. Meanwhile, the closure of schools in the three third world East African countries have impacted an entire region’s young people of the right to an education. Children in refugee camps or poor households aren’t  benefiting from online learning. In May 2020, the Ministry of education and sports in Uganda acknowledged inherent challenges of distance learning and promised to address them.

Restrictions on movement have had  enormous impacts on the poor. The International Center for Transitional Justice observes ”Not only have hundreds of thousands already succumbed to disease, but countless thousands more now find themselves out of work or scraping by in a sinking global economy.”  Recently, Uhuru Kenyatta, Kenya’s president introduced an economic stimulus package to lessen the impact of COVID-19 on businesses and individuals. The lessons from those countries reinforces that the qualification of the derogation of human rights-necessary, proportionate, non discriminatory- must be applied in every government decision including decisions not to act.   


On April 6, 2020, the government of Kenya imposed absolute restrictions on movement in Nairobi, Mombasa, Kilifi, and Kwale counties  for a period of twenty-one days, limiting freedom of movement.  These four counties account for 96% of infections in the country. Schools were closed across the country. Learning has moved online or to learning on television, radio and mobile phones.   

The government cited authority in the constitution, the Public Health Act Cap (242), the Health Act No. 21 of 2017, and the Public Order Act Cap 50 to impose these regulations, and the Kenyan police enforced them. During this time, Kenyan citizens witnessed police brutality. There was a securitization of the health sector, illegal detainment, extortion, and denial of access to justice due to unavailable judicial officers to hear cases. Limitation of freedom of movement were imposed due to curfew restrictions. The Kenyan government hasn’t responded to the allegations of excessive use of force and killings.

Despite these efforts, Kenya has the highest number of infections and fatalities and recoveries because of higher number of tests. On May 25, 2020, Dr, Mercy Mwangangi, Kenya’s Chief Administrative Secretary for Health,  said that Kenya has 1, 286 infections, is able to conduct 2,711 tests daily  and has conducted  61, 791 tests.


The Government of Uganda declared a lockdown of the country on March 23, 2020 for fourteen days. The lockdown was subsequently extended for twenty-one days. Public transport was banned and all Ugandans are  expected to stay home.

The restrictions were imposed under the authority of Objective 23 of the constitution and Public Health Act (Cap. 281).

Uganda has the lowest number of confirmed infections at 227 and no fatalities. Dr. Wayengera, a Clinical Geneticist, Immunologist, and Virologistin Uganda said, “Uganda has conducted over 2000 tests daily, and tested over 40, 000 samples, which is much higher than tests conducted by any other East African country.“

Though the restrictions have had public health success, they have had negative human rights consequences. 

On first glance, these restrictions seem necessary, proportionate and non-discriminatory, but, their execution indicates otherwise. They have a disproportionate effect on the poor. Pregnant women have died because they had to walk long distances to get to hospitals due of the bans on public transport. Those who leave home have to get a travel permit from the Resident District Commissioners offices, though some communities do not have access to these offices.Radio education has become an alternative to classroom education, as not every household has electricity, a laptop or personal computer and access to study materials delivered by the Local Council (LC) system. If schools remain closed for the rest of the academic year, it will set back an entire generation of young people. 

Additionally, both the local defense units (LDUs) and the army in Uganda has been implicated in shooting a deaf man  and trespassing in peoples homes under the guise of enforcing the lockdown and curfews. Some citizens have been jailed for violating curfews and social distancing rules in the name of public health. The Ugandan government has not sufficiently ensured access to health care or provided technology and internet for students who’s schooling is falling behind. Rather, it has used the regulations to impose the strong arm of force on its citizens.


In comparison to Kenya and Uganda, Tanzania’s President John Magufuli has been far more concerned about the economy contracting than the spread of the virus. He refused to heed to calls for a lockdown or restriction of movement in his country. 

There are calls to lock down Dar es Salaam — we will never do that. This is our main port city and accounts for around 80% of government revenue,” he said. 

Most recently, the president said, “We have had a number of viral diseases, including AIDS and measles. Our economy must come first. It must not sleep.” The government is considering reopening schools on June 1, 2020.

Magufuli’s solution is to “pray the virus away.,” In refusing to restrict movement, it initially appears that the Tanzania government respected the freedom of movement, freedom of  religion, freedom of association  and freedom to participate in public affairs. However, at the core of the COVID-19 pandemic, is the right to life , as  enshrined in Tanzania’s constitution (Cap 2) Part III 1977. Human Rights Watch, has accused the Tanzanian government of ignoring prisoners rights during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Interestingly, Tanzania still seems to have the second lowest number of infections (509) and, fatalities (21) among the three countries.  Recently, Ummy Mwalimu, Tanzania’s minister of health explained that, “laboratory machines for testing samples of COVID-19, are faulty, quality assurance and storage of samples is poor, and technical supervision  for COVID-19 samples is lacking.”

But, medical doctors and health experts suspect that their government is involved in a cover up and is not being transparent. In the case of a cover up, the Tanzanian government would be depriving its people of their right to information, a right that could mean the difference between life and death in a global pandemic.


Lockdowns, and  restrictions in Kenya and Uganda prioritized the rights of health and life. The approach adopted by Tanzania protected civil liberties but, defaulted on the rights to health and life .  

There are some silver linings to the COVID-19 pandemic. East African countries are paying more attention to their health care systems. Governments are looking at the state of their economies and learning to boost their manufacturing capacity with a view to lessening their dependence on other countries.But, such efforts need to be accompanied by policies that limit the spread of COVID-19, while respecting peoples right to movement, association among others. Hopefully, the lessons of this pandemic are not learned too late, and the living can be the beneficiaries.

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Africa, Featured, General, International Human Rights Law, Organizations, Public International Law
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