As COVID-19 spreads through dozens of African countries that are ill-equipped to handle the fallout, the UN Police (UNPOL) forces gear up to face the national and international security threats this will bring.
Of the 12,000 UNPOL officers deployed across 16 peace operations and political missions worldwide, the majority are stationed in African nations. Several of these, such as the DRC and CAR, are countries that have been hit hard by successive outbreaks of Ebola since 2014.
Thankfully, COVID-19 is nowhere near as virulent and untreatable as Ebola. It is, however, spreading at a rate that has already overwhelmed the healthcare infrastructure of comparatively wealthy countries like Italy and Spain, and which threatens not only the lives but the livelihoods of some of Africa’s most vulnerable communities.
For UNPOL, the priority now will be to help slow the spread of the disease and assist frontline staff in reaching those in urgent need of medical care. Simply enforcing lockdowns and facilitating healthcare operations is a highly challenging task in countries where ongoing conflicts have dismantled state infrastructure and institutions. Managing populations in an orderly manner to track cases in the orderly manner of, say, Japan or South Korea, is unimaginable in Mali or the Western Sahara, even before you factor in critically low supplies of COVID-19 tests and lifesaving medical equipment.
At the same time, the crisis is opening up new opportunities for organised crime activities that exploit the crisis. From counterfeit medicines and vaccines to smuggling to hoarding essential goods to push up prices, illicit trades are booming amid the pandemic. This is especially true of scams that prey on people’s desperation for a cure. Just as in response to the Ebola outbreaks, confusion over how the coronavirus behaves and what will treat it means many people are susceptible to fake immunisations and wonder drugs.
For UNPOL and the local police forces they work with, this pandemic is a security crisis as much as a health crisis, and the impact on organised crime will last far longer than any lockdown.
Photo by Trevor Cole on Unsplash