On 11 March, 2020, the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the current COVID-19 outbreak a global pandemic. All over the world people are affected by the spread of the virus: people get sick and might die, and many countries have announced lock-downs.
With our headquarters being based in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, Simavi has followed the guidelines set out by the Dutch Government on coronavirus (COVID-19). As such, since the 16th March 2020 until further notice all Netherlands-based staff have been and will continue to work from home. During this period, our colleagues and partners across Africa and Asia are following the guidelines of their respective governments, resulting in the majority also working from home. The restrictions we face have a huge impact on our programmes, which are mostly built around group meetings and community interactions, and as a result, most activities have been put on hold whilst we review and adapt them to address this global health crisis.
Impact of COVID-19 in Africa and Asia
We know that COVID-19 will have a major impact on the people we work with across Africa and Asia where the health systems are often already overburdened. This will strongly affect the treatment of people that are infected and may lead to high mortality rates. Access to water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) infrastructure and services are too often inadequate. Limited access to WASH services is a major barrier to maintaining personal hygiene and increases the likelihood that the virus will spread.
Due to marginalisation and social exclusion, factors such as age, income, social status, health status and sexual preference, further determine the vulnerability of people to a virus like COVID-19, as well as the potential impact on their lives. This requires a response that is in line with the human rights-based approach and pays special attention to those who are the most at risk in order to realise the pledge to leave no one behind (as set out in the sustainable development goals).
For example, the public need to be informed through appropriate channels that will ensure messages on how to reduce the spread of the virus will also reach the most vulnerable. Protective measures can be put in place by governments to support those who lose their income and/or cannot afford their water bills, or those who disproportionally suffer from the pandemic in other ways.
Impact of COVID-19 on women and girls
Gender is another factor that determines the potential impact of the virus on a person. Based on current available data, it seems that in general men are more likely to die from a COVID-19 infection than women. However, based on other public health emergencies such as Ebola and SARS, we expect COVID-19 to have a bigger impact on the lives of women than of men. This impact is likely to be further increased in in lower and middle income countries and amongst more vulnerable groups of women. Women are more likely to get infected due to increased exposure to the virus in their roles as caretakers of children, elderly and sick people, and the fact that most health care workers are women. Women often have limited decision-making power in households and communities, and they often work in lower-paying, more insecure and informal jobs. Despite the fact that women are the main users of, and have specific needs in terms of water, sanitation and hygiene, they tend to have more limited access, further increasing their risk of acquiring the infection.
Furthermore, as the world shifts its focus onto battling COVID-19, we will most likely observe a decrease in the availability of essential sexual and reproductive health services, such as pre- and post-natal health care, abortion care and access to contraceptives, of which women will mostly bare the burden. What we’ve observed from the Ebola crisis is that more women died as a result of the outbreak, not because of the disease itself, but because they could not access the required health services. Public health emergencies along with the recommended social isolation and quarantine guidelines will put increased stress on households and relationships, which is likely to result in an increase of inter-partner and sexual violence.
Using our expertise
With the above in mind, we are working closely with our partners to monitor the situation in the countries where we work. In each of our programmes we are assessing the situation on the ground and planning our next steps. Wherever possible, we will continue our work as planned, towards fulfilling women and girls’ sexual and reproductive health rights, as well as their right to water and sanitation.
Currently, we are exploring what we can do to support, and how to contribute to the fight against the spread of COVID-19 and negative outcomes that will result from the pandemic. We aim to reduce these by using our expertise on prevention and behavioural change, alongside our women-centred approach that enables us to respond to the specific needs of women and girls. In addition, we plan to build on the extensive network of our implementing partners that understand the dynamics and needs on the ground, and have close relationships with national and local government and community stakeholders, including health workers. Finally, we recognise that our expertise on water, sanitation and hygiene, is more relevant than ever, as is our mission: a healthy life for all.