As Covid-19 increasingly spreads and threatens lives, it is also deepening the world’s inequalities.
In South Africa, women battle a system that's designed to keep them at a disadvantage, and as the fight against the pandemic continues it does so within the existing structures of hierarchy.
When Level 4 of lockdown was instituted on 1 May some people hit the streets for leisure and confessed to viewing the lockdown as ‘oppressive’.
As a person living with asthma, the advent of this pandemic has made me hyper-vigilant. Not only am I extra careful to protect my health but I also ensure to not put anyone else in danger because the painful struggle of not being able to draw air into your lungs is one I don’t wish on anyone.
It's disheartening and infuriating seeing people taking strolls by the beach while drinking store-bought coffee and government officials flouting lockdown rules during this time.
On day seven of Level 4 of lockdown, from my apartment window I noticed someone having used a food delivery service collecting their purchases with no mask or gloves and standing centimeters away from the delivery personnel. I
Not too long after, another person arrived with a ride-hailing service carrying luggage with the driver not wearing a mask. The passenger took off their used mask once the driver had left and put it in their bag.
What is also mind-boggling is seeing queuing traffic day after day. Why would there be peak hour traffic during a lockdown?
In the thick of lockdown when we were at a stage we now know as Level 5, I was offered a smoke by strangers while going to pick up my asthma medication at a pharmacy. Stringent social distancing measures observed, I declined the offer — and would have not accepted under any circumstance. But why would you even ask? As Minister Dr. Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma aptly put it in the country’s rationale for not allowing the sale of tobacco, sharing cigarettes will spread the virus.
I fall under the group that is vulnerable to Covid-19 due to health concerns, but there is a larger demographic that is particularly vulnerable to this virus, who are in increased danger when people allow behave recklessly at this crucial time in the fight against this pandemic.
A select few of those who get infected can access immediate quality health care and home safety that can grant them a fighting chance to beat the infection. While many do recover from the virus, the vast majority of those in South Africa don’t have the privilege of private medical care.
The United Nations points out that this pandemic is having devastating social and economic consequences for women and girls. According to the UN, “Nearly 60 percent of women around the world work in the informal economy, earning less, saving less and are at greater risk of falling into poverty”. So, when money is a barrier to quality health care, women are at a disadvantage.
In this country employment is a significant safety net one can have on any day, but more so during this pandemic. Because the more income you earn, the more likely it is that it could not only afford you access to quality food and water but adequate housing too.
The employment context for women in South Africa is dire and taking into account this factor alone makes half of the population at a higher risk of being exposed to Covid-19 or becoming collateral damage as a result of economic insecurity. According to data from Stats SA, the rate of unemployment, in the extended definition, among women is 7.5 percentage points higher than that of men.
And the women who are employed dominate the domestic worker, clerk and technician occupations. People who are in the lower income bracket or are unemployed are usually the ones commuting via public transport and are forced to queue in long lines of brick and mortar stores days in succession for their essential purchases as they do not have access to online shopping or any other conveniences the middle class have.
I recall watching a documentary by Refinery29 about homeless women in the U.S. and how it takes increased rent and losing a job for you to end up homeless. Of course, South Africa doesn’t have the same context but poverty hits women at a sharp angle — even more so now we are facing this coronavirus.
So, when you lose your job or stop earning an income during a pandemic, where do you go? On the flip side, when you are compelled to commute to affluent areas with high infection rates to earn an income that feeds your family, who ensures your protection? When you lose your home in the thick of poverty, what is your safety net?
South Africa’s problem with violence against women, like poverty, is widely known and documented, and in a time of a pandemic women across the board find themselves more vulnerable. In one article, W24 previously reported that women in lockdown with violent partners find themselves at greater risk of harm.
Access to sexual and reproductive health
Dr. Tlaleng Mofokeng eloquently and succinctly paints a picture of how women have been denied their right to sexual and reproductive health services during this pandemic, in a News24 podcast, One More Thing with Tshidi Madia. This is despite the World Health Organisation having issued guidelines for this essential service.
Some of us saw Clicks close-off sexual health products as items not to be purchased as the lockdown was implemented — if you didn’t see this in store you probably saw a picture of it on social media. Of course, the retailer swiftly rectified the error after public concern.
These examples show that when lockdown was implemented, women's sexual and reproductive health was not among the priority considerations that were planned for.
Essentially, just because you are not socially and economically disadvantaged or don’t have preexisting medical conditions that increase your vulnerability to Covid-19, it doesn’t mean you can act without reason. Empathy for people who are vulnerable because of the institutionalised structures of society should be a primary consideration because when it comes to this virus, ill-thought actions will put these women in the line of fire.
So, if you have to think for your own interests, keep in mind that abiding by the lockdown regulations and not spreading the virus will help achieve everyone’s goals sooner — whether you’re wanting to go jog outside, buy takeout or have the economy fully open quicker. Being empathetic and responsible with our actions will get everyone there sooner.
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