We must fight stigma and discrimination as well as COVID19.

Our response to the pandemic should demonstrate our commitment to overcoming stigma and discrimination, sexism and inequality, not exacerbate them, says Joseph Wemakor.

All of a sudden, life came to a standstill as public health and economic issues escalated and the COVID19 pandemic unfolded. The World Health Organization (WHO) The World Bank Group and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) outlined measures, and mobilised their partners to contain the virus. Massive support trickled down under various emergency packages to affected countries including funding, resources and policy advice to help prevent, detect, and respond to the coronavirus pandemic which most African countries including my beloved home country, Ghana received.

These strong initial efforts to help people, especially women, are now being undermined by social evils. 

Stigma and discrimination

In times of crisis and great uncertainty, people tend to look for scapegoats in order to vent their frustrations, worries and fears. People lay blame on identifiable groups of people, based on race, religion, or citizenship. It arises from a lack of knowledge about how COVID-19 spreads, a need to blame someone, fears about disease and death, and gossip that spreads rumours and myths. Stigma leads to labeling, stereotyping, and other negative behaviours. It feeds evermore fear and anger turning people against each other instead of focusing on the disease that is causing the problem. The UN Secretary General, António Guterres in a policy brief on COVID-19 and Human Rights said “the instability and fear that the pandemic engenders is exacerbating existing human rights concerns, such as discrimination against certain groups.”

Stigma also makes people more likely to hide their symptoms, keeping them from seeking healthcare immediately, and preventing individuals from adopting healthy behaviours and actually increase the spread of the virus. 

While the profile of victims varies from country to country, their selection is the same. They are generally the ‘other’, the foreigner, the ethnic or cultural minority. Asians and people of Asian descent, were the most frequently targeted group in the early months of the pandemic. Discriminatory episodes consisted of verbal assaults in public places, denigrating campaigns on social media, the boycott of their business activities and, in some cases, difficulties in access to educational institutions.

Gender Based Violence

In the midst of all these attacks, women and girls in Africa are among the most vulnerable groups exposed to the negative impacts of the coronavirus pandemic.

In Ghana, a three week partial lockdown imposed by the government to contain the virus led to rises in intimate partner violence, sexual harassment, and abuse of women and girls. This is not just a Ghanaian problem, it’s a global phenomenon but in Ghana pre-existing issues; population sizes, poverty, economic insecurity and the health crises are making the problem particularly acute. Policymakers should devise innovative ways of receiving reports of violence during the pandemic such as special dedicated hotlines, apps, and use of coded messages to thwart efforts of abusers who often monitor or restrict access of victims to the outside world.

Gender Based inequality

Entrenched gender roles could take a long time to overcome but governments can improve things for these women now.

Over 60% of Africa’s health workforce and essential social service providers are female, even as high as 91% in Egypt. And in the home, women shoulder far more care work than men, a result of entrenched traditional norms on gender roles, making women more likely to be directly exposed to the virus. Additional care needs from school closures and elderly relatives taken ill mean this burden is growing. African women in the labour force are also more vulnerable to income and job loss as the service jobs often done by women in sectors such as air travel, hospitality, tourism, food and beverage, and retail services are most affected by lockdowns. Entrenched gender roles could take a long time to overcome but governments can improve things for these women now by promoting and accommodating flexible working arrangements that account for their family responsibilities. 

The impact of border closures and lockdowns on industries along the supply chain are further exposing women to income losses, especially in places like Ethiopia where so many women work in the light textiles industry which has been severely disrupted. Furthermore, women’s generally weaker positions in the labour market, has left them insecure. This is a result of lower earnings, less seniority and more informality in their work (89% of women in Africa are employed informally). These pressures are violating women’s freedoms and fundamental human rights. 

They require specific financial assistance to maintain their living standards through one-off income support in cash and/or in-kind such as suspension of rent and utility payments. These policies would help affected women and girls stay afloat in their homes (avoiding evictions) and continue to support their families.

We must fight social evils as well as the virus.

The pandemic has caused much hardship but it cannot be blamed for the violence, physical and economic, that is being committed against women and minorities. Fear of the virus has given rise to ‘stigma’ and then its natural partner ‘discrimination’ and given birth to their perilous offspring ‘violence’. It is up to this to confront this. We can stop the stigma and discrimination and the violence. I call on African governments to take bold steps to mainstream gender in their responses to the crisis, some of which I have laid out above. 

Feature image by Xue Bai

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We must fight stigma and discrimination as well as COVID19.

by Joseph Wemakor Reading time: 4 min