The coronavirus disease, otherwise known as COVID-19, was first reported in Wuhan, China on the last day of December 2019. When it began to spread rapidly , the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared it a public health emergency of international concern on 30 January 2020.
As such, the coronavirus puts and continues to put a spotlight on the need for meaningful investment in health care – and public health in particular, understood as ‘the science and art of preventing disease, prolonging life, and promoting health through the organized efforts and informed choices of society, organizations, public and private communities, and individuals.’
However, in an interesting turn of events brought about by the coronavirus, neoliberal capitalism will be faced with the reality of what its policies actually mean for human life. One just needs to take a look at how the US and African countries like Nigeria are dealing with the outbreak.
Many consider the United States the home of neoliberalism. The healthcare sector in particular has seen reforms in line with neoliberal policies. Now, in the midst of a global public health crisis, President Trump is proposing a ‘16% budget cut for the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and an overall 10% reduction to the Department of Health and Human Services.’ Continuous budget cuts like this see American citizens having increasing cost barriers to getting tested.
The WHO says ‘[k]nowing and understanding your epidemic is the first step to defeating it’. This requires testing people to know where the virus could spread in order to contain it. Stories coming out of the US show people being charged over USD 1,000 in some instances to get tested and even more for being quarantined. Therefore, many are just not going to get tested, further contributing to the spread of the virus. Moreover, many jobs in the US do not cater for paid sick days, which means that for low income earners, staying home when they develop flu like symptoms is not an option.
Structural adjustment vs public health
Similarly, the 80’s and 90’s saw Africa suffer the effects of a series of neoliberal policies under the structural adjustment programmes (SAPs), which essentially cut funding for public services and goods including primary education, primary healthcare and public infrastructure. There was a push for Africa to privatise and have more of a market and export-led orientation in its development.
African countries like Nigeria however, have had to learn hard lessons from the outbreak of Ebola in 2014.
Governments were obliged to cut their budgets for public provision of healthcare, which has been turned into a commodity placing responsibility on the individual rather than on government policy. This meant that healthcare provision shifted to the private sector – a model many social justice advocates continue to criticise as untenable given that the basic mandate of private corporations is solely to generate profit, not to work for the interest of the general public.
The WHO Constitution advocates ‘…the highest attainable standard of health as a fundamental right of every human being’ and states are obliged to support this right. The question then remains how this human right is to be ‘enjoyed’ when its provisioning is privatised and not everyone can afford or access it. This contributes to a change in health seeking behaviour with citizens not visiting health facilities because they simply can’t afford it.
The situations in the US and Africa are of course different because of different circumstances, different histories and different degrees of power in global politics. The impact of privatising health however are obvious and starkly similar.
Nigeria’s success in fighting disease outbreaks
African countries like Nigeria however, have had to learn hard lessons from the outbreak of Ebola in 2014. By the time Ebola was dealt with, Nigeria had twenty cases and eight deaths. It had started in Lagos, one of Africa’s most populous cities, and the government’s ability to contain it under prevailing conditions of a health system on its knees put a shining light on the country. Moreover, Nigeria has also been silently dealing with many different infectious diseases over the last few years. With all this, the country has learnt some major lessons that it is using to help other African countries to fight COVID-19. This arguably makes the country better prepared to fight the disease than countries like the US.
For instance, Ebola taught Nigeria a crucial lesson in the fight against a disease outbreak that has already erupted, when it would have been easier to stop it early on. Nigeria is now applying what it learned back then with regards to the threat of the coronavirus. In particular, Nigeria knows that public health interventions cannot be vertical. Vertical responses are interventions that target specific diseases at a given time and are mostly curative, like cholera or malaria interventions for instance. A number of development partners like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have focused on vertical interventions such as their work on malaria, which however do little to ensure there is a holistic approach to health care.
Currently, Africa is on the verge of a debt crisis largely because of borrowing from private finance in the form of bank loans and bonds.
Horizontal approaches, on the other hand, are broader and focus on prevention and care with a focus on the general wellbeing of a community – making it harder for disease to spread rapidly. Nigeria therefore understands the importance of strengthening systems that regards public health as connected with any other facet of life. Equally important is surveillance, airport and border screenings. Taking people’s temperatures, asking about their travel history and questions related to the symptoms of the disease. A lesson that the US is yet to learn.
The World Bank’s hypocrisy
But healthcare requires proper investment horizontally in a way only public sector can provide. It means a holistic approach to healthcare that provides for safe water to wash hands to stop the spread of the disease, it requires doctors that are decently paid and work in safe conditions as well as research that is well-resourced. This complex web of provisions cannot be delivered by a neoliberal agenda fixated on privatisation. Neoliberal policies have been behind Nigeria (and the rest of Africa’s) devastatingly underfunded public healthcare sector. Despite this, Nigeria has managed to circumvent all these hurdles and had a hugely successful response to the Ebola crisis of 2014.
However, the World Bank continues to advance its new ‘Maximising Finance for Development’ agenda, which pushes countries – especially in the Global South – to look to private finance to solve development issues such as health. On 3 March this year the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund announced that emergency loans would be made available in response to the coronavirus crisis ‘with special attention to poor countries where health systems are the weakest and people are most vulnerable’.
Currently, Africa is on the verge of a debt crisis largely because of borrowing from private finance in the form of bank loans and bonds. This then begs the question why the same financing and neoliberal solutions are being floated as a way to solve the very same systemic problems they created.
Written by Crystal Simeoni, currently the Economic Justice lead at FEMNET – one of Africa’s largest women’s rights networks. At FEMNET, she leads a body of work that intersects pan-African feminist narratives into macroeconomic policy processes and spaces at different levels. She is an Atlantic Fellow for Social and Economic Equity at the London School of Economics.
NB: Originally published here and republished with permission by the author.
The world is witnessing an unprecedented health pandemic. With more than 440,318 confirmed cases of COVID19 across the world, and almost 20,000 deaths (at the time of publication), the world is shutting down. Everyone is being asked to stay home and be safe, but one thing that everyone has forgotten is that homes are not safe for women.
The 2017 report of United Nation office on Drugs and Crime finds that almost 6 out of 10 women intentionally killed are murdered by an intimate partner or family member. Oceania leads with 75% followed by Africa 68%, then Asia 59%, America 44% and Europe 43%. 137 women are killed every day by the people they know. A WHO report of 2013, on violence against women concluded that almost 1 in 3 women globally have been physically or sexually abused in their lifetime.
“Governments are making huge assumptions that homes are safe. I have to disappoint them: homes are not safe for women; we know the facts.”
The State of African Women Report 2018 paints an even more gloomy picture: “One study from Zambia indicated that, among female sexual assault survivors, 49% were younger than 14 and85% younger than 19. Violence makes an early appearance in women’s intimate and sexual relationships. A report by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) indicates that over 50% of ever-married girls have experienced IPV, with the highest rates in Equatorial Guinea, DRC, Gabon, Zimbabwe and Cameroon”.
The report went further, capturing the intersectional oppression experienced by people with disability, older women, sexual minorities etc. in both public and private spaces.
Why I am bringing this up in the middle of coronavirus pandemic? Well, because for so long we have been fighting and calling on governments and communities to make ‘homes’ safer for women, children, people with disabilities and minorities. Too often, decision-makers and perpetrators told us, ‘those are private matter, which should be dealt with privately’. So it is supremely ironic now, to see that a global health pandemic is being managed by asking the public to isolate themselves in precisely those ‘private spaces’.
In doing so, governments are making huge assumptions that homes are safe. I have to disappoint them: homes are not safe for women; we know the facts.
To be clear, I am not suggesting that we abandon social distancing (how I hate that name! I wish we could call it “physical distancing”). Coming from Africa where social capital is all you have to manage a crisis like this, I do feel that as countries go into lockdown, we all need more humanity, more emotional connection, support, more hope and inspiration. And technology today allows us to offer ‘social support’ and stay socially connected with less physical contact. “Physical distancing’ should also address physical violence, which women and girls have been experiencing in their private spaces.
Importantly, we urgently need to clearly communicate and make resources available to report, control and manage gender-based violence. Otherwise, with everyone locked down, gender-based violence could rise to unprecedented levels. Women, children, people with disability and minority groups need to know that lock down does not mean that they should tolerate violence, that they should not report abuse or that they should keep on living with their abusers. We need to urgently provide needed support to millions of people who might now be experiencing harassment, abuse and violence in their home as they manage the spread of the virus.
Neither, for all of us in Africa, should lockdown become an excuse to subject women to an unbearable burden of unpaid care work. If anything, coronavirus should be an opportunity for both men and women, boys and girls to share household work and nurture a more equal society.
However, this we will not happen automatically: resources and messaging need to be clear. For example, the ongoing media campaign educating the global community about the virus needs to strongly and categorically promote a fairer sharing of care work and safer homes, free of gender-based violence.
Governments across the world need to establish and/or inform communities on reporting processes, hotline numbers and support systems available to deal with a wide range of violence. It is dangerous and wrong to treat ‘lock down’ or ‘stay home’ as gender neutral. We know that our homes are gendered, they are the core of the ‘unequal gender relations’ and they are not safe.
NB: Originally published here and republished with permission by the author.
For the last 63 years, the United Nations has hosted a commission on the status of women (CSW) established as a functional commission of the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) by ECOSOC resolution 11(II) of 21 June 1946. The CSW is instrumental in promoting women’s rights, documenting the reality of women’s lives throughout the world, and shaping global standards on gender equality and the empowerment of women. In 1996, ECOSOC in resolution 1996/6 expanded the Commission’s mandate to take a leading role in monitoring and reviewing progress and problems in the implementation of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, and in mainstreaming a gender perspective in UN activities.
The two weeks event usually attracts women and women’s rights advocates from all over the world who convene to discuss, put a spotlight on the successes, roll-backs and challenges that remain in the fight to end unequal gendered power across the globe. The event is held usually in March at the UN headquarters in New York, USA.
This year’s CSW64 will now be held for one day, today 9th of March – on what is now called ‘procedural meeting’. The corridor talk suggests there will be another session to close CSW64 on Friday 13th March. This will mean, the CSW64 session will be held and concluded in two days attended by governments representatives based in New York accompanied by New York-based International Non -Government Organisation otherwise known as (INGOs).
This state of play did not only make me think and reflect on the women rights politics in the world, it made me accept, for once, the tough truth that we, feminists, and women’s rights organizations especially from the Global South, have always been a token to the process, we are not needed, it can be done without us, to put it mildly.
Let me put the records straight, I understand the recommendation of the UN Secretary General, we are witnessing a global health crisis caused by COVID-19 (Coronavirus). Taking into consideration the weak health systems in most African countries, I will not wish to see any women exposed to these health risks. Health is feminist but the decision of member states to reduce CSW64 to a day session for only New York-based delegates leaves a lot to be desired. I mean, why wouldn’t they postpone it until the world out of this health crisis and the unprecedented travel restrictions it has brought about? Why is the rush? Why are they so keen to meet, deliberate and close the session? What are they hiding? Why are they comfortable to exclude others? Why now, as we celebrate +25 years of Beijing platform of Action? I have so many whys I can go on and on.
I should say, I have not been a devotee of UN processes because of its elitist nature and minimalist approach, but this decision, particularly incensed me, Why can’t the UN and UN Women, in particular, uphold even few of those minimalist principles? Did they really reflect on what this decision would mean to women around the world? Are women of the world that replaceable and dismissible?
With all the flaws and imperfections, CSW has been and will continue to be the space where women of the world in their diversity meet to debate, monitor, and agree on ambitious commitment to advance women’s rights in the world. The current methods of work were established by ECOSOC resolution 2015/6 and at each session the Commission:
“Convenes a ministerial segment to reaffirm and strengthen political commitment to the realization of gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls as well as their human rights, engages in general discussion on the status of gender equality, identifying goals attained, achievements made, and efforts under way to close gaps and meet challenges,
The session also evaluates progress in implementing agreed conclusions from previous sessions; discusses emerging issues, trends, focus areas, and new approaches to questions affecting the situation of women, including equality between women and men, that require timely consideration”
So CSW in many ways bridges the work of the Economic and Social Council and that of many women’s rights advocates on the ground. At the time when the world is facing unprecedented increase of sexism, bigotry, autocracy, populism, conservatism and all forms of exploitations of women’s bodies, mind and soul, it is disturbing that the UN would host an event to lock out the very lives and voices that pay the price of pushing against violence against women.
“Akufaae kwa dhiki ndio rafiki” is a famous Swahili saying which simply means, your true friend will be there for you at times of crisis, the opposite also true. At times like these, is when UN and UN Women should stand and protect the right of ‘participation’ of feminists and women’s rights organizations from across the world. This is the time when they should uphold their value and call for solidarity among actors so that we can all focus in defeating coronavirus which is affecting everyone, our sisters in Asia, Europe who are the most impacted by this health crisis; they too have the rights to participate in CSW64. But NO, they had to have the session and divide our attention and focus, how unfair?
This decision meant two things to me, we are just an ‘add on’ on the process and to most, women’s rights remain just another day job where they wouldn’t hesitate to do it anyhow to tick the box and move on with the next task. Even CSW in its current form is still restrictive to diverse women’s voices in terms of access, to cut it back like this limits any chance of meaningful engagement. The UN’s dead politics which nature and embrace capitalism, patriarchy and white supremacy are still here. This crisis exposes the limited imagination of what inclusive organising around women’s rights looks like
So you know, for some of us, women’s rights are our life. Our reality is the battle we fight every day.
NB: Originally published here and republished with permission by the author.