Covid-19 and the impact on vulnerable groups

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The Coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic has laid bare some of the challenges faced by society and the vulnerable groups in particular, whom the World Health Organisation (WHO) specifies as pregnant women, elderly people, malnourished people, and people who are ill or immunocompromised. These groups are further confronted with triple challenges of poverty, unemployment and inequality.

The pandemic has further put to test the support provided by the government or aid organisations.  Is it adequate, sustainable and can the relief progressively drive these groups out of the poverty trap?

Majority of people from vulnerable groups are involved in community-based organisations (CBOs) and Non-governmental organisations (NGOs), which were grounded by the Covid-19 pandemic in the past seven months.  These are people who are at the core of community volunteerism in the Covid-19 mass screening and testing across the country.

The country has moved to lockdown alert Level 1, coinciding with the commemoration of various International Days in October which are aimed at raising awareness and advocating for vulnerable groups. The United Nations (UN) is at the forefront of the commemoration of most of the International Days.

In South Africa, the government has declared October as social development month with the aim to engage communities to identify their challenges and put together action plans to deal with these challenges. Hope is that this translates to sufficient care of vulnerable groups throughout the 365 days of the year.

International Day of Older Persons kick-started October month, with this year’s theme being ‘Pandemics: Do They Change How We Address Age and Ageing?’ whilst the day aims to draw public attention to the problems of the elderly.

Various literature has recorded the mental effects of Covid-19 and lockdown, especially on children and adolescents. This should then shine the light on the significance of World Mental Health Day, observed on 10 October every year.  According to WHO, the day is observed with the overall objective of raising awareness of mental health issues around the world and mobilising efforts in support of mental health.

October 11 and 15 are observed as International Day of the Girl Child and International Day of Rural Women respectively, sadly the number of Gender-Based Violence (GBV) and femicide cases were reported to be on the rise during the hard lockdown in South Africa.  Girls and women continue to “bear the brunt” of these evil deeds. It is therefore without doubt that the fight against the scourge of GBV and femicide should be a collective effort.

Girls should never suffer the indignity of missing school on account of lacking sanitary pads. We stand with the girl children and women, they should exist in an environment free of any GBV and femicide induced harm.

Besides facing various forms of societal challenges, many, especially women, are either infected or affected by the cancer disease.  We stand with them this October, which is Breast Cancer Awareness Month and beyond.

It is mind-boggling that there are still cases of unequal pay between men and women for doing the same work, with the latter being at a disadvantage.  As the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality (UN Women) Executive Director, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka puts it “Employers must make far-reaching changes to employment terms and conditions for women: Equal pay for equal, decent work.”

According to the Business Women’s Association of South Africa (BWASA) 2017 Women in Leadership Census Report “Only 20.7% of Directors and 29.4% of Executive Managers are women.  At the top leadership level of organisations, women account for only 11.8% of CEOs or Chairpersons.”

The above numbers are an anomaly in light of Statistics South Africa (Stats SA) estimating the mid-year population 2020 at 59,62 million, with around 51,1% or approximately 30,5 million of the population being female.

There is still truth in the saying that “when you empower a woman, you empower the family, community and ultimately society”.

In relation to how we treat and raise children, late global anti-apartheid icon and South African President, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela said: “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.”

As the country embarks on economic recovery initiatives and preparation for post-Covid-19, there should be clear plans on how we make vulnerable groups resilient and ready for the possible second wave and future pandemics.

The pandemic has surely brought unimaginable devastation to the impoverished folks.  According to a Somalian Proverb, “Poverty is slavery”, hope is therefore that “Acting together to achieve social and environmental justice for all”, the theme for this year’s International Day for the Eradication of Poverty on 17 October, will be seen in action.

According to StatsSA, females are more impoverished than males in South Africa, with poverty headcount of 58,6% as compared to 54,9% for males. The unemployment rate was recorded at 23.3% in the second quarter of 2020.

Rights of vulnerable groups are human rights and Advocate George Bizos who recently passed on at 92, is synonymous with championing their rights in the South African context. He used the courtroom as the springboard for the rights of the needy and downtrodden thus his legal contribution to humanity will forever be cherished.

Bizos served three consecutive terms on the Student Representative Council (SRC) during his time at the University of Witwatersrand and this is where he also met Nelson Mandela, his long-life friend in 1948.  It was during his time at Wits where he is recorded to have said “If wanting my fellow black students to be treated equally makes me a leftist, then I am proud to be one”, paving the way for a lifetime as “a lover of freedom”.

In light of the challenges laid bare by the Covid-19 pandemic, there is perhaps a need for a year-round recommitment towards the eradication of all forms of inequality and empowerment of vulnerable groups in order to build resilient communities.

As we ponder how to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls, a Kuba proverb reminds us that “Women are part of the origin of life’s big mystery on earth; they know the secret of a good life.”

By Kwena Manamela and Malesela Maubane

Manamela is an author and social commentator, and Maubane is a public relations strategist and social commentator.