The Covid-19 pandemic now entering its fifth month has sparked an unprecedented global health crisis that has fundamentally disrupted the social and economic fabric of all countries. Governments have imposed severe restrictions on movements and travel that have virtually locked down countries. Most African countries have imposed some degree of restrictions to protect the populations from the spread of the virus. This is clearly an important protective step, but we also need to consider the very real danger that the Covid-19 pandemic will leave. COVID-19 is overshadowing other challenges like locust in East Africa, and likely climate volatility issues such as drought and flooding that normally get attention and now, they may impact communities while everybody is looking somewhere else.
At this point, most of us are aware of the far-reaching impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic. As of this writing, Covid-19 has killed over 850,000 people around the world, and it’s a health crisis that has set off a chain reaction of calamities in other sectors. When governments implemented necessary policies to stop the spread of the virus, people retreated from public life. Borders were closed, flights canceled, schools and offices shuttered. A health crisis became an economic crisis, an educational crisis, and so on.
It’s even spawned additional public health issues, as people avoid checkups and routine care. Vaccines, for example, are considered a proxy measure for how well a health care system is functioning. During the pandemic, global vaccine coverage dropped from 84 to 70 percent, according to the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME). It’s a low not seen since the 1990s.
Further evidence of this chain reaction can be seen in the arrested progress of the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a group of interconnected objectives — such as ending poverty and hunger and increasing access to health care and clean water — the organization hopes to accomplish by 2030. Each year, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation tracks the world’s progress toward these goals in its Goalkeepers Report. While it always points out areas where there could be improvement, it’s usually happy to announce headway has been made on all goals; however, 2020 looks very different. The report estimates the world community has regressed on nearly all of the 18 indicators it tracks each year.
Ahead, we highlight three key takeaways from the report. They show not only where the world is moving in the wrong direction, but also the right one — and how we can end the pandemic and resume progress on the United Nations’ SDGs as expediently as possible.
The financial crisis will not end with the pandemic for everyone
Necessary measures designed to stop the virus’ spread plunged the world into the worst recession since the end of World War II, a financial retraction that’s twice as bad as the Great Recession in 2007-09. Countries poured a collective $18 trillion into their economies, but poorer nations could not afford major stimulus packages.
“The amount of resources you have govern what kind of response you’re able to mount to Covid,” says Vishal Gujadhur, who works on the Development Policy and Finance team at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. “G20 countries spent over 20 percent of GDP in their emergency measures, whereas developing countries spent about 3 percent.”
Now, the IHME estimates extreme poverty has increased by 7 percent in 2020 — the first increase in 20 years. Thirty-seven million people have fallen below the extreme poverty line ($1.90 per day in lower-middle income countries) so far this year, and 68 million have fallen below the poverty line ($3.20 per day).
But while the pandemic has taken a greater economic toll on developing countries and vulnerable communities, there are signs of hope — in low- and middle-income nations coming together to mount an economic response to the pandemic, and in efforts to ensure an eventual vaccine is distributed equitably among all nations.
Lower-income countries are innovating in the financial sector
One place the world is seeing progress is in low- and middle-income countries, where some of the most vulnerable people live. In Nigeria, more than 100 private-sector partners created the Coalition Against Covid (CACOVID). So far, they’ve raised $80 million to bolster the government’s response. Other developing countries have created technologies to transfer cash to people, and the World Bank estimates 131 countries have either implemented programs or expanded existing ones since February. All together, the measure is estimated to have reached 1.1 billion people.
The West African Economic and Monetary Union, an eight-country financial community, has sped up the process of opening a bank account. It now allows residents to do it via text message and then follows up to verify their identity within three months. The switch has allowed more than 8 million West Africans to open an account while in lockdown.
India, which had a digital identity and payment system in place before the pandemic, was able to transfer cash to 200 million women soon after the pandemic hit. It’s not only allowed the country to avoid an increase in hunger and poverty, but also advanced its long-term goal of empowering women by including them in the economy.
A vaccine is coming — but it must be distributed equitably
How fast the global economy can bounce back is the question everyone would like an answer to. It’s now clear that the vaccine which will end the pandemic will also be the key to economic recovery. But to do so, it is critical that the vaccine be distributed equitably across the globe.
Right now, countries have bet on a few pharmaceutical companies and locked in supply for only their own populations; however, only 7 percent of vaccines in the early stages of testing go on to be approved. Some countries will win these bets, but they cannot have a winner-take-all mentality. Reserving doses for one country, or even a few, will only lengthen the pandemic.
“If there’s only one billion doses of vaccine next year, that’s not enough for everyone, even in high-income countries,” says Gujadhur. “By the end of 2021, the pandemic could be behind us for a lot of countries. And the question is how many? Is that just 10 countries that have it behind them? Or is it 60, 80, 100?”
The Goalkeepers Report calls for every entity in the international financial system — governments, businesses, and development banks — to mount a cohesive response to ending the Covid-19 pandemic. It is not yet clear if the world can organize that kind of collaborative response, but there are reasons to be optimistic. In the spring, the Access to Covid-19 Accelerator (ACT-A) was launched in response to a call from G20 leaders to mobilize an equitable response to the pandemic. It has partnered with the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness (CEPI), an organization that has invested in nine vaccines, and Gavi, The Vaccine Alliance, which helps to buy and distribute vaccines to lower-income countries.
“CEPI has the largest portfolio in the world, with nine vaccines it’s investing in. So it’s maximizing the chances that we’re going to have a successful vaccine that is really effective,” says Gujadhur. “And the UK and the US have invested in so many vaccines that they probably have enough for everyone in their country and then be able to donate to other countries as well.”
The good news is this best-case scenario is still within reach. “It’s not a fantasy, but it’s not a foregone conclusion,” says Gujadhur. “It requires hard work, political leadership and thinking beyond the bounds of your country.”
If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that everything and everyone is connected. While the world community faces significant challenges in mounting a response, it’s clear that to end the pandemic’s devastating health and economic effects, our solutions must also be global, interconnected, and fairly distributed to all.
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“My husband is doing more house chores now, we do not have help and he has had to feed the children, wash utensils and at times clean the table while I am doing something else.” Miriam*
Roles within families in all their diversity are changing; women and girls’ roles within these families are changing. While families have been viewed as the safest place for women and girls, it is this same space that is endemic with gender inequalities, oppression and violence against women and girls. It is also in these spaces that we are currently seeing changes in gender roles and how some men have been challenged to do more work in the households due to the COVID-19 lockdown, curfews and quarantine measures. Are these experiences and changes challenging gender social norms, roles and stereotypes? Are these changes temporary or long lasting?
With COVID-19 prevention measures in place including families being quarantined and in lockdown together, the roles that have mainly been taken up by women, men are now beginning to take up. What does this mean? Are we saying that COVID-19 is exposing and challenging gender stereotypes/roles?
Listening to Miriam narrate her experience prior to COVID-19, juxtaposed with the current circumstance, with her husband forced to act because, perhaps for the first time, he is experiencing and feeling the tremendous workload at home, made me think about this aspect of COVID-19 that must be addressed adequately. Saying all of this however, I am not oblivious to and deeply acknowledge the rising cases of gender based violence as well as rising conflicts due to increasing anxieties and adjusting to a new normal. While I can’t be conclusive and give exact statistics, anecdotal evidence, from Miriam and a number of other women, I realize that men are now doing more house chores than ever before. Is this a good thing?
For instance Miriam’s partner works at home and because of COVID-19, they were forced to tell the nanny who works on a daily basis to stop coming. They are both working from home, they need to homeschool their kids between the ages of 5 and 7, meals have to be prepared, dishes washed and the house tidied while at the same time trying to meet work deadlines. She tells me that the first few days she tried to be super woman and do all the work. Then one day, the food was late and the kids were hungry. There were dishes in the sink and being unable to handle it, she asked the husband to help. To her surprise he did – and it has since been the norm for weeks now. I had a number of questions. Should she have to ask for help before trying to do it all? She wondered why it happened now because even when they do not have help over the weekend or holidays, the husband does not lift a finger to do anything in the house. Has COVID-19 complexities, demands and new normal pushed men to do more within the household? Will this continue or patriarchy will take it back once the pandemic is over?
Most men in our communities have grown up and been socialized to believe that the majority, if not all household chores are women’s roles. Some were even chased out of the kitchen from a young age and told that the kitchen is the preserve of women and girls. However, now that they are stuck at home, they are beginning to be reminded what it means to parent children and manage homes. To some extent, COVID-19 has started to challenge gender roles, with some men beginning to take up roles that culturally and socially have long been designated ‘women’s roles’. Miriam’s story is not an isolated case, there are many other men that are now taking on household chores, however, while some are taking up these roles, others are responding with violence.
Numerous studies have been carried out that demonstrate the immense contribution of unpaid care work to households, communities, and the economy. The lack of recognition of unpaid care work as work that is contributing to economic growth continues to widen gender inequality and gender disparities. Every minute a woman spends doing unpaid care work is a minute less she will spend in leisure or income generating activities or investing in her education or personal and/or professional growth. As UNICEF has indicated, COVID-19 has highlighted the role of unpaid care work in times of crisis. While we are beginning to see a shift in the responsibilities taken up within households, data continues to show that care roles are still disproportionately undertaken by women and girls during COVID-19.
A lot more needs to be done to ensure a violent free home environment and more equitable burden sharing that is permanent and the norm, rather than situational.
Esther Kimani is the Founder/Director of Zamara Foundation, a feminist, women’s rights activist, a sexual and reproductive health and rights advocate and psychologist based in Nairobi.
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