Public health crises like COVID-19 exacerbate existing inequalities that disadvantage women. Although both sexes are equally likely to contract the disease, earlier estimates suggest that men die more from the virus for reasons spanning the gamut of biology and genetics to lifestyle. Nevertheless, women bear a disproportionate burden of the socio-economic fallouts of the disease.
Africa is in a little-acknowledged crisis, obstructed from the spotlight by the constant and loud sound of the coronavirus click counter across the continent. This crisis is unfolding on women’s bodies and minds across the continent and playing out in the sordid underbelly of the pandemic’s fallout and its catastrophic impacts on vulnerable populations. Despite the surge in cases across the world, Africa currently accounts for 4.5 per cent of the world’s over 35 million cases, down from 5.1 per cent, and 3.5 per cent of the world’s 970,000 plus deaths from the coronavirus, up from 2.6 per cent respectively in the past eight weeks, holding differences in testing and testing capacities constant.
Countries are diverting resources from already fragile healthcare delivery systems to tackle the pandemic, inadvertently driving up morbidity and mortality from other diseases, including the lack of access to obstetric and reproductive care, with disproportionate impacts on women. While Africa continues to bask in its much-touted effective handling of the coronavirus, relative to the disastrous outcomes recorded in North America and other wealthy countries like China, more people are dying, and many more are suffering untold hardships from the secondary and tertiary effects of the pandemic. Women bear the brunt of this hidden crisis in Africa, as the pandemic has laid bare the differential and predominantly negative impact of public health crises on women.
African leaders have, for now, succeeded in staving off the worst of the predictions that Africa will become ground zero of the pandemic. However, they have struggled and, in most cases, failed to effectively manage the pandemic’s fallout for women and other vulnerable groups in society. Much like Africa’s previous experiences with epidemics and public health crises helped it build the capacity to deal with the coronavirus pandemic, its catalogue of existing developmental and governance issues, including violent conflicts and extremism, food insecurity, and environmental degradation, amplifies socio-economic pressures from the pandemic.
Public health crises like COVID-19 exacerbate existing inequalities that disadvantage women. Although both sexes are equally likely to contract the disease, earlier estimates suggest that men die more from the virus for reasons spanning the gamut of biology and genetics to lifestyle. Nevertheless, women bear a disproportionate burden of the socio-economic fallouts of the disease. Preliminary gendered analysis highlights how the pandemic intensified existing inequalities and vulnerabilities, leaving women as victims at multiple and compounded levels. For example, the diversion of resources from primary healthcare services that allow for managing conditions like diabetes, hypertension, cancer care, child delivery services, and reproductive services results in increased morbidity and mortality in women and children. African countries like Nigeria have faced intense scrutiny over their handling of the pandemic’s socio-economic fallouts, including their failure to recognise the potential of gender to escalate the pandemic’s spread and heighten its impacts for populations at the margins of the state, including women.
While some governments, like Ghana, made attempts to utilise a gender consciousness their palliative policies, such as waiving electricity and water bills for women-owned small and medium-scale enterprises (SMEs), other countries were less concerned. For example, Nigeria’s COVID-19 palliatives distribution only benefited some urban dwellers.
The crisis is made worse by the indiscriminate and non-contextualised adoption of strategies applied by Western countries and wealthy economies like China, including strict lockdowns, economic shutdowns, border closures, and non-differentiated quarantine regimes. While these cookie-cutter strategies have proved challenging even for wealthy industrialised economies, their effects on African countries and their citizens have been brutal. For example, African countries are mostly rural and food insufficient. Border closures cut off food supply channels and disrupt food value chains, worsening hunger and starvation. Africa has a predominantly informal economy that employs upwards of 80 per cent of the labour force, which is mostly female and depends on daily income for survival. The cookie-cutter containment strategies worsen the precarity of women’s situations, given the absence of social safety nets. The resulting economic crisis hits women the hardest, as will the -5.1 per cent economic decline forecast to hit Africa this year.
While some governments, like Ghana, made attempts to utilise a gender consciousness their palliative policies, such as waiving electricity and water bills for women-owned small and medium-scale enterprises (SMEs), other countries were less concerned. For example, Nigeria’s COVID-19 palliatives distribution only benefited some urban dwellers. It reached a paltry 3.6 million, out of 95.9 million households living in extreme poverty. This miserly coverage has been due to inadequate material provision and the absence of established channels of policy transmission, which resulted in state agents’ inability to identify and reach vulnerable families. As such, while COVID-19 infections and mortality may remain relatively contained across the continent, illnesses and death from the pandemic’s spill-over effects continue to surge. For example, the pandemic has worsened food insecurity in conflict areas like North-Eastern Nigeria, leading to starvation and an increase in early child marriage as a quick source of family income.
Additionally, the increased strains from financial and health pressures are resulting in and exacerbating domestic violence and the sexual exploitation of women and girls. The unwanted pregnancies that often result from these violent encounters compound women’s insecurity, given the lack of access to sexual and reproductive services. Moreover, school closures increase women’s care burdens and ruin prospects of economic independence for girls and women, as many do not return to school afterwards. Moreover, COVID-19 seemingly creates new issues like a regression in the gender equality agenda across the globe, in general, and Africa, in particular, as shown by trends like the reinforcement of gender roles in the homes. These disproportionate burdens that women bear often worsen mental health by inducing depression, trauma, stigma and fear, and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
The pandemic presents a critical juncture for all countries, particularly African states, to recast their relationships with one-half of their populations, who have been historically mistreated. An economic restructuring that moves the informal economy into the mainstream will connect women to the state’s institutional infrastructures, including social provisioning and protection.
While much damage has been done, a window of opportunity still exists for African governments to alleviate these impacts and change the downward trajectory of human development for Africans, and especially the women. Raw data and anecdotal evidence suggest that countries with stronger social or moral contracts with their citizens (like Rwanda), with relatively more equal citizenship status for women, fare better under the pandemic. African countries have an incentive to pay close attention to women’s socio-economic conditions and well-being, as the pandemic rages on.
The disadvantage women in Africa face in relation to the pandemic is not unique to them, but it is generally experienced by black women in other continents. A trove of evidence shows that populations that face historical discrimination are relatively disadvantaged during pandemics, and black women form a significant part of this population. Racial and ethnic minorities in America, including women of colour, especially black women, are at higher risk of contracting the virus due to socio-economic dynamics, including being essential workers in the low-wage sectors, as heads of households, and multi-generational caregivers. They are equally at higher risk of dying from the disease, due to social determinants of health-related comorbidities like obesity, cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, and kidney disease.
The pandemic presents a critical juncture for all countries, particularly African states, to recast their relationships with one-half of their populations, who have been historically mistreated. An economic restructuring that moves the informal economy into the mainstream will connect women to the state’s institutional infrastructures, including social provisioning and protection. Women’s leadership inclusion seems to matter, although the relationship needs further specification. While the pandemic is far from over, and new research finds no effect of women’s leadership for producing better pandemic outcomes, the facts remain that some of the countries with the best run pandemic engagement are women-led. There is significant research that provides a clear economic incentive for countries across the world, and those in Africa, to expand socio-economic opportunities for women and improve their well-being through access to quality and affordable healthcare. To do otherwise is irrational.
Chiedo Nwankwor is a lecturer in African Studies at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) and serves as director of the school’s SAIS Women Lead Program.