COVID-19 pandemic had a major impact on the health and well-being of many in South Africa. As at the time of putting this write-up together, a total number of 538,184 cases of corona virus with 9,604 deaths have been reported in South Africa as documented by worldometer. The confirmed cases spread across all provinces with Gauteng and Western Cape having the highest number so far. At the start of the pandemic, the fatality rate for men was about 60-80% higher than that of women but as the spread continues, women in South Africa are increasingly much more vulnerable according to Southern African advocacy platform Genderlinks through their article in Mail and Guardian. The reason for the preponderance of fatality among women may be connected with the high incidence rate of HIV/AIDS in South Africa of which young women accounts for over 57% of about 5-million people living with HIV/AIDS. HIV/AIDS weakens the immune system and as such, makes people living with HIV/AIDS much more predisposed to respiratory complications as normally observed for coronaviruses infected persons. This necessitated the concern raised by President Cyril Ramaphosa in his speech of Monday March 23 about the susceptibility and severity of corona virus infection in people living with HIV/AIDS.
Despite this temporary setback, South African women have demonstrated great zeal and resilience in various sectors in which they work in the face of COVID-19 pandemic. According to OECD policy responses to COVID-19, women are playing a key role in the health care response to this crisis. Two-thirds of the health workforce worldwide and in South Africa are represented among physicians, pharmacists, physiotherapists, nurses and midwives. Globally, about 70% of all health and social-services workers and those on the front lines of the pandemic are women. This is particularly true for South Africa, where majority of its domestic and health sector workers are mostly women. In addition to this, they play major roles in the family and society at large. They are the principal care givers to their spouses, children and the aged ones living with them. It is a well-known fact globally and particularly in South Africa that women carry out more than three times the daily house chores than men. During the COVID-19 lockdown, women were extremely overwhelmed with so many tasks. These responsibilities which are normally shared in the public space – such as schooling, and care for the fragile are now largely transferred to them. It takes a woman with great determination, passion, courage and enthusiasm to strive through the trying period of this novel pandemic. Some women have to play the role of a wife and also scuttle through various other additional responsibilities due to closure of schools and commencement of online learning. This added to their normal workload and requires more of their time and concentration to follow up with the lessons and supervision of homework given to their children in addition to giving closer attention to their spouses. Also, women who are front liners battled with the fear of infecting their family members with corona virus due to their numerous lifesaving tasks which necessitated close contacts.
Despite the success rate recorded over some challenges impacted by COVID-19 pandemic on women, it was however difficult to navigate through some of them. Hospitals have provisions to care for only the most severe cases which is about 5% to 20% of the total victims of COVID-19. With a great number of victims self- isolating and quarantined, women most likely bear the burden of this home/hospital-based care which is also detrimental to their own health. Also, to meet up with their work challenges, some of the working mothers are compelled to leave their younger children with limited supervision, compromising their safety. Some women are also faced with high risks of job and income loss, increased risks of violence and abuse during the COVID-19 crisis and as such, have to battle with the new reality of economic and financial challenges. In certain cases they lacked access to basic necessities such as food, health care and clothing. Where the woman live with her abuser such as intimate partner, the challenge is much more grievous as the abuser may have to put the victim (usually women) on strict allowance or make them depend on the abusers for money to meet their personal needs. In her statement, the Executive Director of United Nations Women, Mlambo-Ngcuka, encouraged government to pay more attention to the great contribution of women in the society and their precarity. This is because women that are self-employed and engaged in small- and medium-sized businesses are at the centre of the current crisis. It must also be noted that due to the COVID-19 lockdown so many domestic workers who are mostly women and constitute about 8% of the total workforce in South Africa may now have to face the painful reality of losing their jobs. Their huge domestic supports during the working hours may no longer be needed since everyone is now under lockdown. Another major threat to the survival of domestic workers and other women in South Africa is the dwindling economy due to COVID-19 lockdown which may narrow the chance of them returning back to their jobs after COVID-19 pandemic. The domestic workers union had raised the alarm of being one of the sectors that is worst hit by the ravaging pandemic of COVID-19.
Sexual exploitation and domestic violence are also some of the challenges that confronted most women in South Africa during COVID-19 pandemic. This challenges were aggravated two weeks after the lifting of ban on alcohol sale in the month of June, 2020. This shows that most of the nefarious acts against women were due to the influence of alcohol. This was buttressed by the South Africa’s police minister- Hon. Bheki Cele that crime rates were much lower following the ban on alcohol sale during COVID-19 lockdown. The period of COVID-19 pandemic was really a nightmare for so many women who were terribly injured and abused. Some were not so lucky and had to be murdered. Few of the deadly cases during the COVID-19 lockdown were the cases of a pregnant woman by name Tshegofatso Pule who was discovered hanging on the tree, two young women shot dead in KwaZulu-Natal province and Sibongiseni Gabada who was murdered and sliced into pieces and kept in a sport bag.
This period of COVID-19 crises is another trying time for South African pregnant women. It is even more worrisome and complicated when a pregnant woman is also an essential worker whose services are required during this pandemic. The burden of having to earn a living and also battle for her own safety and that of the baby inflicts psychological trauma on women. This was the case of Mpho Makhubela who despite the precautionary measures put in place by the company she works with said “the joy of pregnancy is been taken away from me due to the virus, and I’m not free at all”. According to Health-E News, many pregnant women fail or are reluctant in attending antenatal clinic due to the fear of contracting the virus. Some have to resort to private healthcare practitioners, but even that also had challenges as the hospital management and the doctors were getting strict by not allowing intimate partners or close relations to accompany the pregnant mother thereby making them go through the rigours of labour alone. The hospital management also regulate the pace of attending to pregnant women to comply with the rule of social distancing.
How can these challenges be mitigated against women in the face of COVID-19 Pandemic?
Provision for childcare support to working mothers
Navigating through the pressures at work and child care by women especially the essential health worker is a challenging task. Specific attention should be placed on vulnerable women, such as temporary workers, refugees, pregnant women, nurses, workers with disabilities and those who lack access to benefits like paid sick leave. The provision of childcare support to these working mothers in essential services by the government will go a long way to alleviate the pressure created by the pandemic on them.
Flexible work arrangement
There should be flexible work arrangements by employers to enable women workers care for their children and families. Such arrangements include working from home, compressing their work within the week or ensuring protected long-term leave so that workers can care for their sick relatives, elders or family members living with disabilities. If possible, pregnant women or women with underlying ailments such as HIV/AIDS diabetes and hypertension who are front liners should be exempted from essential duties during COVID-19 pandemic or any other future pandemics without compromise to their salaries and entitlements.
There had been financial support for workers whose jobs had been affected by the pandemic but more support are still needed especially to women because of the responsibilities they promote. Pregnant women are also expected to be supported with grants. This has been advocated before by researchers from Wits University in 2016. Currently, a petition is live and ongoing for people to sign to garner support for government to implement the grant. This will help pregnant women survive challenging periods such as COVID-19 pandemic in future.
Protective policies that favors women: There should be more advocacy for policies that confers protection for women workers especially pregnant women during crisis period such as COVID-19 pandemic. Employers should also help protect their employees by maintaining clean and hygienic working environment for them. In order to achieve this, there should be provision of adequate personal protective equipment for vulnerable women especially health, domestic and social workers who are front liners in the face of this pandemic. More women should also be engaged in committees related to crisis management and safety or any other committees that ensures proper and adequate protective measures for workers.
Special health facilities: Government should ensure separate health facilities to cater for the health challenges of women during health crisis such as COVID-19. This will give women population most especially those within the reproductive age unlimited and easy access to health facilities. Employers of labour should also provide women employees with guidance on how to seek medical support and direct those who might be experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 to medical providers.
Free Health Care: Government should ensure free health care during this period of crisis. There should be reduced financial burdens on women workers who fall sick during COVID-19 Pandemic. Women with low-income and casual workers should be provided with support which includes but not limited to paid sick leave.
Organizing Training for women entrepreneurs
Personal initiative and soft skills training can be organized to assist women entrepreneurs and business owners in order to be proactive and diligent in the running of their businesses to navigate through this trying period and also help to recuperate faster after the pandemic.
In conclusion, women constitute a formidable force to reckon with at home and in the society based on their numerous roles and responsibilities which cannot be overemphasized. It is therefore not out of place for South African government to focus on programmes and policies that will benefit them more as this will go a long way to assist in the survival of women and also strengthens or boost their morale in navigating through COVID-19 pandemic or any other future unforeseen challenges. Also, policymakers should incorporate women economic empowerment programmes and allow women have access to resources and also support economic recovery for women across South Africa. Lastly, the South African government is doing well by encouraging several local companies in the production of personal protective equipment. Furtherance to this, government should also ensure these companies engage more female workers as a way of alleviating the socio economic impact of COVID-19 on women and their families. By so doing, we can build a better and more resilient economy for women in South Africa.
Dr Adebimpe Esther Ofusori is a researcher at the School of Chemistry and Physics, University of KwaZulu Natal, Durban. She writes in her personal capacity.