In times of war, conflict and outbreaks such as COVID-19, it is women and girls who are hit the hardest. The last few weeks have been filled with news on this global pandemic; the media continues to pay full attention to the novel coronavirus. As the situation deteriorates in the UK, I cannot help but think about how the virus will impact on the global south, particularly Zimbabwe. I have been mulling over the challenges that the people of Bulawayo and the rest of Matebeleland could potentially face?
Coping with this catastrophe
What strategies do we have lined up to ensure that indeed no-one is left behind in line with the 2030 agenda?
Pre-coronavirus, the majority of Zimbabweans were not enjoying their full economic, social and cultural rights.
The US and UK are struggling to contain this epidemic which is about to devastate the developing world. The National Health Service (NHS) has called back retired staff to help tackle the outbreak. So, what does it mean for the average Zimbabwean who survives on less than 1 USD a day? Or for those in hard to reach areas in Matebeleland North? According to the World Bank poverty rose from 29% in 2018 to 34% in 2019, an increase from 4.7 to 5.7 million people.
The world is taking precautionary steps to minimise the spread of the coronavirus. The lockdown or quarantine is our “new norm”. Around the globe, schools are closed, parents are juggling home-schooling whilst fulfilling their professional commitments remotely. This is my situation in the UK, and for most countries across the world, a new reality for the next few months. “Self-isolate and keep connected with friends and family remotely” is what we have been encouraged to do. How about the marginalised with no means of communicating remotely? This presents an additional set of problems for those who are depressed or have anxiety issues and need that social interaction for their well-being.
So yes, we are adjusting, following government guidelines and going out only to buy the basics. The advice is to stock up on food and other essentials. To affluent families this can be achieved. I am however cognisant that this is not the same for families facing economic challenges. This pandemic is bringing out the stark societal inequalities.
Home isolation will not be the same for the woman or girl who has a myriad of challenges to deal with before we even begin to have the discussion on the coronavirus.
The World Health Organisation guidance recommends “washing hands regularly with soap and water”. Due to the economic hardships there are members of society that cannot afford soap. The practical challenges cannot be ignored. Water does not run freely in every household which leads to the issue of gender roles and unpaid care work. What happens to the women and girls who ordinarily congregate and collect water from community boreholes for domestic use? This is a necessary daily routine task which could present potential problems in this current context. A mind-set change is necessary now as social distancing and self-isolation become key. Overcrowding should be avoided in order to contain the spread of the virus.
Awareness raising is important and whilst some know about COVID-19 to others it is a “global pandemic that will seemingly affect those abroad”. There are so many perceptions. The understanding of this pandemic is at different levels hence demystifying the information is critical. Translation of the messages into local languages can go a long way in ensuring that as many people as possible become knowledgeable on how best they can protect themselves and others in their communities. It is good to see that in the last few days material has been made available in local languages; more dissemination is imperative.
Using local radio, news channels and the voices of local celebrities to convey the messages will heighten alertness and further illuminate the gravity of situation. No-one should be excluded, the aim is to conscientise at all levels.
Not everyone has access to social media bundles, which creates a gap. Information shared via social media platforms therefore does not reach all members of society. How do we ensure inclusivity?
The UK National Health Service NHS guidelines recommend that you do not leave your home if you have a high temperature. In the context of Zimbabwe, the same proactive measures can be applied to minimise travel to clinics or hospitals. The test can be done at home without using a thermometer. “If you feel hot on your chest or back, then you know you have a high temperature”. Such information should be shared widely, in local languages, so that the appropriate isolation steps are taken, without necessarily seeing a health worker.
The healthcare systems
Thorngrove Infectious Hospital in Bulawayo has been identified as the isolation centre for individuals who test positive for COVID-19. The referral hospital for 5 regions, was built in 1941 and needs maintenance. More importantly the healthcare professionals need protective clothing. The lack of appropriate clothing for hospital staff can deter them from reporting to work as was seen in the last two weeks, where a number of nurses walked out of Mpilo Central Hospital, the largest hospital in Bulawayo. Their ask: The provision of PPE clothing as per the WHO guidelines.
The El Nino induced drought in recent years, and other socio-economic problems have led to many households in rural settings being faced with food insecurity. Now how does one who contracts COVID-19 fight against it if they are malnourished? Those with pre-existing medical conditions are particularly at risk. The nexus between poverty and the pandemic is evident.
The inability of the economically challenged to stock up on food supplies contributes to people travelling into the Central Business District (CBD) frequently to queue for maize meal and other basic commodities. People are advised to practice social distancing and stand one metre apart from each other. How is this possible in a highly densely populated area?
A multi-stakeholder approach is the answer to putting comprehensive strategies in place to strengthen the health systems particularly in public hospitals. In the absence of robust social welfare programs what happens?
Undeniably there are challenging times ahead, the inequalities are real, and like with any other catastrophe, women and girls bear the brunt of the burden. In most cases they are the primary caregivers, looking after both nuclear and/or extended families. The ailing economic situation does not help. Sexual health and reproductive rights (SRHR) cannot be left out of this discussion. The lack of clean water as well as limited financial resources for menstrual hygiene products will certainly affect some members of the population. Girls from disadvantaged backgrounds who experience period poverty will be affected.
The coronavirus is certainly something we could have done without, globally. The rapid escalation is concerning. However, this is where we are and now is the time to find solutions. The 21-day lockdown in Zimbabwe officially began last week. Urgent coordinated action is necessary. These are trying times and I salute the frontline public health workers who are already doing a fantastic job, working passionately with very limited resources. Online fundraising campaigns have been set up worldwide to respond to this crisis, the diaspora also have a huge role to play in supporting our key health workers. In the last few weeks it has become apparent humanity is important. We are all interconnected. The whole word has been moved by this public health emergency crisis, a virus which knows no boundaries. These are uncertain times, but I choose to be optimistic and say, “this too shall pass”.
The views of the author are personal.
Tandi Pilani, Women’s Rights Advocate