A Billion Africans Are at Risk From Coronavirus. But European-style Lockdowns Won’t Work

Confinement, lockdown, quarantine, all ways to describe a series of social and economic measures to isolate humans from others, has a long history. They have served to address a wide range of issues, ranging from leprosy to madness to all manner of anti-social behaviors.

According to Foucault, confinement serves as a tool of the state to define deviance and conformity. Though it feels like a punitive measure, confinement was rarely presented as such. Rather, confinement in history has been framed mostly in moral terms and only subsequently as a response to medical conditions.

The 17th century saw a proliferation of "confinement houses" in Europe. In Paris, criminals were locked down together with the poor, the unemployed, and the "mentally ill" – though interestingly these confinement houses neither possessed any medical certification nor provided any clinical services. At their peak, the mixed crowd that they housed amounted to 1 percent of the general population of Paris. 

Today, 100 percent of Paris is in quarantine, just like entire countries worldwide. Leaving one’s domicile is only permitted with a special note and under specific circumstances. Failing to comply entails penalties. Unlike Foucault’s account of confinement, the new lockdown defines the normal rather than the abnormal. Curfew is the reverse of another justification for old-time quarantine: rather than separating out those incapable of driving to the Protestant work ethic and keeping capitalism strong, the economic breakdown brought upon by COVID-19 has no winners.

Burundians being repatriated wash their hands as a preventive measure against COVID-19 on their arrival at the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo. March 18, 2020AFP

Authoritarian states, even churches, have had the power to proclaim curfews. But when it is imposed by an external virus individuals are more unprepared and vulnerable: the spectrum of suffering ranges from petty issues of Netflix bandwidth to very serious problems of unemployment and severe depression. As many countries enter into another week of restricted movement, a google search of "what to do under lockdown" yields over 370,000,000 results. The distress of the public is evident. 

But despite the distress of dealing with its worst pandemic since the Spanish flu, it is worth recalling that social distancing is a great luxury that many simply cannot afford. Last weekend in Kinshasa, the 14 million people of Congo’s capital city responded to the state’s request to stay at home with enormous gatherings and queues everywhere, from banks to markets to businesses, to which the government, in turn, rushed to react with military and police forces. 

– Kinshasa: civil servants storm banks to withdraw their savings ahead of the just-announced lockdown

#RDC #Kinshasa. 27 Mars 20. Scène surréaliste devant les banques! Les fonctionnaires à la recherche de leurs salaires pour aller faire des achats avant la fin de la journée et l'imminence du #confinement. Au finish, le gouv @NgobilaM reporte tout ! @Presidence_RDC @PrimatureRDC pic.twitter.com/vRhYmgRxOr

— Rufin KITOKO (@RufinKitoko) March 28, 2020

Kinshasa: civil servants storm banks to withdraw their savings ahead of the just-announced lockdown

But the inhabitants of Kinshasa who flooded the markets and banks upon hearing about a pending lockdown weren’t being "undisciplined" or "indifferent" to the risk of a pandemic. Quite the opposite.