To enforce or not enforce Covid-19 restrictions, that is the question

This blogpost is part of the Covid-19 Governance Mapping initiative, a collective effort to document the structures of national decision-making in the world’s Covid-19 response, and the actors involved. Together with experts from The Collectivity and a team of researchers, the project gathered data on over 20 countries, mostly for the period between April and July 2020. That data is public, and the blog series provides a first analysis of the findings.

By Boel McAteer and Léonard Ntakarutimana


In the new world of Covid-19 rules and regulations, people all over the world have had to get accustomed to restrictions in their daily lives. And while it may seem like the measures put in place are more or less the same everywhere, with for example bans on large gatherings, travel and hospitality, there are big differences in how the regulations are being enforced. In some places breaking the Covid-19 regulations are punishable crimes, whereas in other places the rules are simply recommendations that cannot be enforced.

On one end of the spectrum is Sweden, where a very limited number of hard rules have been in place throughout the pandemic, particularly during the first wave in the spring of 2020. The population was instead provided with recommendations around how to behave to limit the spread of the virus, but without any repercussions attached to not following them. This approach is at least in part due to the country’s governance structure, as public bodies in Sweden are led by subject matter experts rather than politicians. The Public Health Agency, which has been in charge of the Covid-19 rules and recommendations, does not have any legislating powers, and the government was for a long time hesitant to use law enforcement as a tool. The resulting lack of enforceable rules is now one of many aspects of the Swedish approach to tackling the virus that is presented as an explanation for why the country has had much higher death rates than its neighbours.

In Africa, there are examples of governments neglecting to enforce Covid-19 regulations for other reasons. In Tanzania, despite school closures and other measures taken early on in the pandemic, there was no social distancing enforced in churches and the government announced in June 2020 that the prayers of its citizens had eliminated the virus from Tanzania altogether. The approach of the government only became more cautious and supportive of anti-Covid-19 measures in March 2021. As many as ten African countries held elections during 2020 with limited measures in place against Covid-19 that had been put in place by their respective governments. It is important to acknowledge that socio-economic and security conditions also play a part in enforcement, as they can make it more difficult for governments to reach out and be trusted. If social distancing were to be enforced around elections, for example, it could easily be held against governments as a way of preventing people from attending and voting.

On the other side of this extreme are countries that have made breaking Covid-19 restrictions a criminal offense punishable by prison. In Ethiopia, the police arrested over 1300 people in May 2020 in order to enforce the mandatory use of face masks. Jordan is another example of where hundreds of people were arrested for breaking the nationwide curfews that were in place in March. When the aim is to keep a virus from spreading, arresting people can also create risks as people are kept in confined spaces. This has been highlighted as a public health concern in the United States where many protesters were arrested during the summer’s Black Lives Matter protests. Mass arrests as a form of pandemic law enforcement practices have in some cases contributed to the spread of Covid-19 more than it has curtailed it.

There are also examples of violent enforcement of Covid-19 regulations, for example in Uganda where security forces have been reported to shoot into crowds that are deemed to not be observing social distancing rules. Recent reports from Amnesty International raise concerns around how law enforcement of pandemic violate other human rights, both in Europe and elsewhere in the world. This includes discrimination against groups and people that are portrayed as potential spreaders of the virus, such as migrant workers or travelling Roma communities. There are also concerns around freedom of speech in many places, as governments try to limit the spread of “misinformation” surrounding Covid-19.

This rule can all too easily become a question of who decides what counts as misinformation, as seen in for example Tanzania where both journalists and lawyers have been arrested and suspended from working for commenting on the government’s lack of response to the pandemic. In these cases, the governance context of each country plays an important role, and particularly the country’s history of freedom of expression through media and civil society. It is a question of the general approach towards individual freedoms, not just within the pandemic, and the extent to which debate and criticism of government decisions has previously been allowed as a part of the public discourse.