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Opinionista

In the communities, the SA Covid-19 ground response is mostly female

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Amy Nelson is a full-time social science student at SACAP and a feminist community activist. Since the lockdown she has been working within various networks (Muizenberg CAN, C19 People’s Coalition, Cape Town Together) to raise awareness around diversity issues, and provide on-the-ground community support.

Thrust into community work during lockdown, I am inspired by strong women tackling the issues that matter to the marginalised majority. But I also realise how all this community work and activism is, in essence, still just unpaid care work, for a government of well-paid, mostly-male policymakers who have, once again, failed to adequately meet our most basic of needs.

There is a sudden, and unexpected shift in the dynamic between my partner and I. He has always worked, while I, like 43% of highly-skilled women, exited the workforce to take care of our son when he was born. Now, during the lockdown, my partner has no work, and I have been overwhelmingly busy, and for the first time, our roles are reversed. 

I buckle down and get a chance to feel unencumbered and work-focused. My partner speaks of his bonding with our son. Of his growing appreciation for what I do for our family, much of which had gone unnoticed or was minimised. He also speaks of his admiration for the driven, work-orientated version of myself (which we both missed over recent years). There are times where we worry about the future, where we hold each other and cry; and times where we make light, and joke that, while he is from Sweden, ranked 4th most gender-equal country, it took a global pandemic for him to start cooking.

This delicate transformation taking place in my home feels grotesque in comparison to transformations taking place in homes across this country, ranked 17th by the World Economic Forum, with 55.5% of the population living below the poverty line, going into the pandemic. Of which, they report, 93% are black, and 52,7% are female. Moreover, 46% of children live with a single mother (more than any other family configuration). These numbers are foreboding of the deleterious outcomes of this pandemic for women and girls. With the following key areas being the most worrying. 

The Covid-19 response strategy includes a ban on alcohol sales to minimise accidents, violence and crime; and a stay-at-home order to prevent the rapid spread of infections. Although perhaps curbing the outbreak spread, the strategy places innumerable women and girls in inescapable, life-threatening danger. 

They are home-bound with men, who’s abusive behaviour is exacerbated by the conditions of the crisis. Within the first week, there were over 2300 police reports of gender-based violence (GBV), and it is believed that the true severity is being massively underreported, due to restrictions on movement and access to phones. 

While working within the CAN network and C19 People’s Coalition, one thing stands out to me:  women. Everywhere. Determined, just, and altruistic.

In Sierra Leone after the Ebola outbreak, where similar social constraints were imposed, there were significant disparities between police reports, data gathered from surveys, and hospital reports.  Similarly, reports from GBV shelters show an increase beyond all current capacity; and personal accounts of the movement and access challenges from women trying to escape, are emerging.

Dr Lesley Ann Foster, a member of the Presidential GBV Steering Committee, says they are working tirelessly to improve legislation to strengthen support for women and girls during the pandemic, and going forward. However, the reality, that this is a prodigious, and deep-rooted social problem, remains; and is why punitive measures will be insufficient as a standalone response to this GBV crisis.  

In 2014, KwaZulu-Natal social scientist Nina Hunter estimated that the value of women’s unpaid care work, per capita, per month, was between R585 and R7,619. The mean estimated cost is R4,395 (without adjusting for inflation).  

Owing to the state’s home-based care policy, the burden of elderly, sick, and child care, falls heavily onto women and girls. During the lockdown, schools are closed, people aged over 60 are at high risk, and those who are Covid-positive are in quarantine. This means that women now have the added responsibility of full-time childcare, cooking lunches, which are usually provided by school feeding schemes. Also, shopping and running errands for elderly community members and taking care of Covid-positive family and community members.

Not only does this prevent women from working if they were fortunate enough to have employment, to begin with, but it also puts women at higher risk of infection as they are unable to limit their exposure. The government is attempting to ameliorate the financial strain by supplementing support grants, as per the recommendation of the South African Development and Research Unit at the University of Cape Town. However, counter to the advice to increase the R440 child support grant (CSG) by R500 per child, the increase is limited to the receiving caregiver. This means that mothers will receive an additional R500, regardless of whether they have one or five children.

Furthermore, the Covid-19 Social Relief of Distress grant (CSRD) of R350 is subject to households where no other members are grant recipients. In essence, the R500 top-up is a caregiver grant because mothers receiving the CSG are not eligible for any other grant. This means that, either the CSG is the only grant which has not received an increase, or that it has, but mothers have been excluded from the Covid relief plan. 

Grant top-ups were devised as a means to most effectively deliver funds from the government’s R50-billion relief package to the most vulnerable communities. Compared to the recommended R500 per child, this plan, inequitably, leaves 2 million children wholly unprovided for. Moreover, by preventing mothers from accessing the CSRD, means CSG dependent households will be living below the food poverty line, which is R561 per capita. Currently, it is a punitive structure, which is anti-poor, and a human rights atrocity, which once again, falls upon the nation’s women and children. If women already do 75% of unpaid work, then what will the strain of this global pandemic have on them? This is an issue we cannot afford to ignore.

Public transport is also limited during the lockdown, and many women and girls are unable to access reproductive healthcare, pregnancy support and HIV treatment. There is very little evidence on untreated HIV and Covid-19, but the European Aids Clinical Society predicts comorbidity associated with higher mortality rates. With a single-mother-household majority, this will not augur well for the safety, survival, and future of these families. 

Girls are particularly vulnerable during the lockdown as they are more likely to experience incest, rape, and other forms of abuse. This was observed during the Ebola outbreak, where pregnancies increased by 65%. These experiences are likely to result in Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, fewer girls returning to school, fewer female graduates entering the job market, a higher prevalence of single mothers living in poverty. This is a concern, not only from a humanitarian perspective but also, from an economic point of view. 

I am inspired by all these strong women, bringing up the issues that matter to the marginalised majority. But I also realise how all this community work and activism is, in essence, still just unpaid care work, for a government of well-paid, mostly-male policy-makers; who have, once again, failed to adequately meet our most basic of needs. 

So, as the lockdown struck, I signed up to be part of the community response groups and quickly found myself appointed a CAN (Community Action Network) group leader. As such, I set up a group of qualified volunteers to provide psychosocial support to our community, with the national tracing unit connecting Covid-19 cases to us for assistance. We provide each referral to a caseworker who performs a bio-psycho-social needs assessment. We then arrange assistance, from counselling to sending data, providing groceries or meals, that get delivered to their homes. 

While working within the CAN network and C19 People’s Coalition, one thing stands out to me:  women. Everywhere. Determined, just, and altruistic. So many that I start counting them, and of the overall 13,120 participants, 72% are female, 24% are male, and 4% are unspecified. It appears that the South African Covid-19 ground response is predominantly female. 

Witwatersrand University researcher, Tasneem Essop and Professor Karl von Holdt pointed out the failings of the government’s heavy-handed, top-down approach, when they stated that NGOs, coalitions, and community responses had been the most effective at swiftly mobilising and responding to the safety and needs of vulnerable communities. On April 12, the European Centre for Disease Control also listed the seven countries with the most rapid, humane responses and all were female-led. Then, on April 27, the UN launched Rise For All, a global advocacy group of women leaders, calling for all to “meet the human crisis of the Covid-19 pandemic”.

I am inspired by all these strong women, bringing up the issues that matter to the marginalised majority. But I also realise how all this community work and activism is, in essence, still just unpaid care work, for a government of well-paid, mostly-male policy-makers; who have, once again, failed to adequately meet our most basic of needs. 

There remains a painful feeling of powerlessness, a sinking déjà vu, realising once again, how tightly the noose of hegemonic masculinity is wrapped around our necks. The reality of it is stark, as I pause writing this to take the call from a terrified woman whose partner has violently attacked her. DM

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