Africa: ECA Policy Brief Spotlights Women’s Wellbeing and Health Care Systems Amidst COVID-19 Pandemic

African countries need to do more to upgrade the continent’s fragile health delivery systems if they are to cope with pandemics such as the coronavirus which within weeks, has infected 10,662 people in 52 countries with 533 deaths and 1174 recoveries recorded as of this writing.

The Economic Commission for Africa (ECA), in a new Policy Brief titled Gendered Effects of Health Emergencies: The effects of the COVID-19 Outbreak on Women’s Wellbeing, says the availability of good healthcare systems reduces the care burden on households, in particular women who shoulder the majority of unpaid activities in the home, including looking after the sick.

Incidence of the novel coronavirus have been relatively low in Africa. Many fear an all-out outbreak will break the continent’s highly vulnerable health systems.

“African countries should also consider the merits of decentralizing their health services to enhance health response capacity locally; learn from Ebola crisis; and maintain health care services including sexual and reproductive health services,” said Director, Thoko Ruzvidzo, of the ECA’s Gender, Poverty and Social Policy Division that penned the Brief.

Ms. Ruzvidzo adds that infrastructure is vital in tackling, and minimising, the effects of health shocks and the COVID-19 pandemic on households and communities. The negative health, time and welfare effects on women are accentuated due to the relative low levels of access to electricity and improved drinking water sources. This leads to women, and children, spending significant unpaid work time (Benin 25%, Ghana 16%) on collecting firewood and water, and in the process increases the probably of further ill health effects associated with Covid-19.

Women are more likely to have to forego economic activities due to school closures to care for young children and in order to take care of the sick at home contributing to financial inequalities. The increase in women’s unpaid work responsibilities adds to their existing burden – in Africa, women spend between 2 and 11 times undertaking unpaid work than men, with adverse effects on their physical and mental wellbeing.

The Brief emphasizes if women disproportionately forego economic activities and increase unpaid work, the longer term economic growth impact for economies will be worse than expected. The importance of gender-aware planning and decision-making with Ms. Ruzvidzo stressing the need to ensure increased use of sex-disaggregated data to analyse the differential effects of COVID-19 on men and women.

“We need gender-aware policy-making to ensure future public health emergencies take account of differential needs of men and women,” she said, adding we must provide a gendered fiscal space approach combined with gendered budget planning to ensure enough resources are channelled into health and social sectors to cushion the ordinary person in dire times.

The Policy Brief emphasizes that greater participation of women in decision-making positions in public health and emergency response is important to ensure the needs of women and girls are adequately taken into account.

The ECA is proposing that governments also move to advance payments for pension and cash transfers programs to assist the elderly, who have an overall 30 percent coverage in Africa’s social protection programmes. Extending coverage to the most vulnerable will also ensure health access across the board.

“Governments must also top-up income support in poor households; maintain regular feeding and health programs; linkages and referral system for this emergency must be set up for all nationals; and the elderly and most vulnerable in urban areas should be prioritised, in the first instance” says Ms. Ruzvidzo.

The Brief also calls on governments to support social programs for the elderly and the vulnerable using technology-based systems for virtual bank transfers, among others.

Credit: Africa Renewal (United Nations)

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