Organized Crime and the COVID-19 Pandemic

As of 18 May 2020, 53 countries in Africa recorded 85,000 cases and 2,700 deaths; officials believe these figures are gross underestimates. Africa has a population of over 1.3 billion, and a Yale University study estimates that by 30 June, 16.3 million people in Africa could contract COVID-19. As the coronavirus circulates most rapidly in overcrowded urban concentrations that lack safe water and sanitation, the concerning facts are that more than 40% of Africans live in urban areas, and half of the urban population of Africa lives in slums. African countries have responded to the pandemic by closing their borders and ordering curfews and lockdowns to prevent the novel coronavirus from spreading. Many are using public health experience gained in combatting previous epidemics of polio, Ebola and AIDS.

M. Turshen “The virus that imprisons” original paper collage 4”x5”
Jan Rysavy/Getty, The Guardian Weekly, 3 April 2020.

The catch, though, is that more than 85% of all employment in sub-Saharan Africa is informal, and close to 90% in informal employment are women whose duties at home include care of children and the elderly. Since most Africans rely on work in the informal sector for their daily meal, movement restrictions have taken a toll on their income: 41% already live below the $2-a-day poverty line. Malnutrition is an imminent danger – one in five Africans is malnourished. I know of no specific studies of the synergy of COVID-19 and malnutrition, but we do know that malnourished individuals have an inadequate immune response, putting them at higher risk for infectious disease. Infection leads to inflammation and worsening nutritional status, which further compromises the immune system.

The comorbidities that endanger people, especially the elderly, in industrial countries – diabetes, hypertension and obesity – are not the conditions most common in Africa, where malaria, tuberculosis and AIDS are endemic. HIV causes immunosuppression and puts HIV-positive Africans who are not receiving treatment at high risk of COVID-19. Moreover, as malaria, TB and AIDS affect all ages, the assumption that the novel coronavirus will be less lethal in Africa because its population is young (60% of Sub-Saharan Africans are under 25 years old) may not be accurate.

New opportunities for organized crime

A decade ago, Moisés Naím wrote about the booming illegal trade in drugs, arms, intellectual property, people, and money, a trade that is dominated by agile, well-financed networks of highly dedicated individuals, who are driven by the promise of enormous financial gain (between US$ 1.6 trillion and $ 2.2 trillion per year, according to Global Financial Integrity). The pandemic offers new opportunities for many illegal transactions. People who have lost their source of income, and people who are fleeing conflict, violence, danger and inhumane conditions are defenseless when contacted by smugglers and tricked by traffickers.

Measures to curb the spread of the new coronavirus — lockdowns, travel restrictions, resource cutbacks — are diverting law enforcement resources, thus creating openings for criminal networks to operate with impunity. Reduced social and public services leave desperate people with no alternative sources of support. Organized crime networks quickly figured out how to manipulate the restrictions and profit from this diversion.

Carte des traffics trans-sahéliens
Source: RHIPTO – Norwegian Centre for Global Analyses, 2016

To give just one example: the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime found that corruption in the Guinea-Bissau National Guard, intimidation of judicial police inspectors, and complicity among senior government leaders have led to the use of government lockdown measures to restrict opponents of the regime, allowing drug market actors to move with increased impunity. With the relaxation of maritime and airport cargo oversight measures, large-volume shipments of cocaine continue to enter the country by sea and air from Latin America to be stockpiled locally and distributed in smaller loads to transit waypoints and markets throughout the west and north of the continent.

Investigators have concluded that travel and movement restrictions are not stopping the migration of people; if anything, the closure of land, sea and air borders has increased people’s need for the services of smugglers to cross frontiers. At the same time, victims of human trafficking are more exposed to contracting the coronavirus, less equipped to prevent it, and have less access to healthcare for treatment. Victims of human trafficking are often denied access to shelters, which fear they are carriers of the disease. Some shelters have had to close because of infection. A general lack of basic services exacerbates the plight of those trafficked.

Women and children targeted

With schools closed, the pandemic has forced more children onto the streets to search for food and money, increasing their risk of sale and sexual exploitation. Travel restrictions have spawned new ways to abuse children such as “delivery” or “drive-thru” services. The African Child Policy Forum notes that the rapid spread of COVID-19 exposes children to violence, sexual abuse and labor exploitation, and hunger, malnutrition and ill health, as well as the loss of parents and caregivers. The absence of social protection and community safety and the widespread closure of schools and childcare centers effectively exclude children from basic services and deprive them of safe havens. Children with disabilities, children living on the street, child domestic workers, children in institutional care, in prison and in refugee camps are at highest risk of abduction, abandonment and abuse.

The Global Slavery Index counted 9.2 million slaves in 51 African countries in 2016: 37% in forced labor, 63% in forced marriage. Women and girls are disproportionately affected by modern slavery, many are victims of forced marriage and forced labor in the commercial sex industry. One in five children in Africa is working, making it the region where the risk of child labor is greatest. Countries experiencing profound and current conflict could not be surveyed by the Global Slavery Index. My expectation is that the COVID-19 pandemic will cause these numbers to spike as organized crime intensifies its hold, and, equally, the casualties will be underestimated.

Many leaders say we are at war. It is more accurate to say that pandemics create war-like scenarios in which the elderly are the first to die, girls are pushed into early marriage, children are locked out of school, and indebtedness increases debt bondage. Conflicts do not create economic vacuums even as they disrupt economies; nor do pandemics. Criminal organizations fill the void.


Meredeth Turshen

Professor Emerita, E.J. Bloustein School of Planning & Public Policy, Rutgers University; turshen@rutgers.edu, http://bloustein.rutgers.edu/turshen/

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