– Martha Mukaiwa
The story of the Covid-19 pandemic is one the world is still writing.
For the most part, we are familiar with the main characters, plot points and life-saving weapons. The deadly virus that has resulted in over 160 million confirmed cases and 3.3 million deaths.
The exhausted and haunted healthcare workers constantly pleading with the world to stay home, protect themselves and others.
The sanitizers, masks, vaccines and social distance that make up the evolving arsenal against the disease that has devasted the globe.
This story, the horrifying central events, are consistently documented but below what we know so well is the account of the pandemic’s unique, gendered and entirely devastating effect on women and girls.
In Namibia which has recorded over 50,515 cases and 702 deaths, as it is almost everywhere, women have suffered major economic and social losses. And many efforts towards gender equality have been significantly hampered by an overrepresentation of women on the pandemic frontline, working in the informal sector and heading single parent homes.
“Across every sphere, from health to the economy, security to social protection, the impacts of COVID-19 are exacerbated for women and girls simply by virtue of their sex,” reports the United Nations in a policy brief titled ‘The Impact of Covid-19 on Women’(202o).
“Compounded economic impacts are felt especially by women and girls who are generally earning less, saving less, and holding insecure jobs or living close to poverty.”
Carmen Jason, a digital marketing manager for a local tourism and conservation company is a Windhoek-based single mother who was debt free and comparatively thriving before the pandemic.
Separated from her husband for a number of years, Carmen is the sole breadwinner for her family, a plight which is common in Namibia. “Nearly half of households are run by single mothers, many of whom face severe financial struggles that compound the challenges they are already confronted with,” reports The Namibian Sun.
Carmen who has had her salary halved, been diagnosed with fibromyalgia and had to pull her son out of school to deal with the debt of mounting school fees looks back on the pandemic with candor.
“Tourism was really affected by Covid. I think it was March 2020 when we went into lockdown and our salaries had to be cut. The company did try its level best not to let people go. Everyone in management had to take the salary cut so that our lower income earners, like waiters and housekeepers, could still get their full salary,” she says.
“In that way, I think our company handled it quite well but, obviously, as a single mother and being the sole breadwinner, it was a huge knock.”
The mother of two boys, the oldest who was sent home along with her during Namibia’s stay-at-home orders, Carmen struggled to keep pace with work, maintaining a household and managing mandated home schooling.
“The bit of advantage I had is that I am renting a big house so I made a deal with one of my tenants to look after my kids while I work. I basically went to go and hide in the garage so they wouldn’t bother me,” says Carmen who also cares for her 70 year-old mother who has not left her home since the start of the pandemic.
“It was quite a challenge. Eventually my kids did discover me in the garage and then it was a bit of a nightmare trying to get work done with them running in and out,” says Carmen who admits to having a number of breakdowns.
“I had a couple of nervous breakdowns during that time. I was quite depressed. I was feeling very overwhelmed. I also felt a lot of guilt because I wasn’t really the best mom during that time,” she says.
“The stress and the pressure and everything made it that sometimes I wasn’t as patient or understanding as I should have been with my kids so the guilt was also there the whole time, especially knowing that my son was falling behind.”
Intensifying the guilt was the undeniable reality that Carmen would need to take her son out of school just to settle the accumulating school fees and to keep her household afloat.
“Before the pandemic I managed to get myself debt free and now I’m kind of back to being in debt,” says Carmen who has managed to negotiate a payment plan to return her son to school as her original salary has been reinstated.
“I really do think the pandemic falls much harder on women. If I think back to the time when I was still with my partner and we were both working, the majority of the household chores and the kids’ stuff does fall to the women anyway,” she says.
Carmen’s thoughts about the heavy burden placed on women both pre-and post-pandemic are reiterated by *Tonata Shiveka, a hairdresser and single mother of two who works in Windhoek’s central business district.
“The pandemic has affected women too much because the responsibility is too much,” says Tonata who has been a hairdresser for ten years and pays rent for both
her home and salon chair where she plaits, weaves and washes hair or makes wigs often for up to 12 hours a day.
Tonata is the sole breadwinner in an extended family of eight and struggled to make ends meets after Covid-19 mitigating stay-at-home orders shut her salon for two months in March 2020.
“It was very difficult to come back to work and we were very scared. You don’t know who your customer is in contact with and you’re scared to take that disease to your kids,” says Tonata. “Even financially it was very difficult to take care of our kids. There was no food and no money.”
Desperately defying stay-at-home orders to do hair at her house during lockdown, Tonata managed to survive and says, a year later, customers have slowly returned.
“There’s an improvement but many customers are still not coming. They say they are not coming because they are scared of Corona and, in the salon, it’s gathering,” she says.
“Until today, they are saying no to come there. I must also always put on a mask and I have a problem putting on masks because I have sinusitis.”
Reluctant to take the vaccine yet fearful of the risk of contracting the virus given her prolonged and close proximity to clients, Tonata puts her faith in the Lord and questions the role of men.
“We believe in God and that God is there to protect us from that virus,” she says.
“Men, I don’t understand. I have a baby. Sometimes I don’t have enough money to buy nappies or food. If you ask the men, they say: “I don’t have money”. What can you do as a mother?”
On another busy corner of the city, *Ndeshi Nampala, an informal seller, weekend hairdresser and single mother of four sells masks, sweets, socks, cigarettes and traditional food and has had to grapple with the same question.
Like most of Namibia’s informal workers, Ndeshi has no medical aid or social security, no savings or safety nets. Having sold her wares at the same spot for five years, Ndeshi vividly remembers being sent home when the pandemic hit.
“I left this place on the 27th of March until I came back on the 20th of July,” she says before expounding on her time in lockdown during which she received one government issued stimulus payment of N$750.
The money lasted Ndeshi one trip to Shoprite where she bought bread, meat and essentials for her family while staring down months of unemployment.
“The whole time I was just sitting at home doing nothing. I tried to sell fatcakes (vetkoek) at home but there were no customers,” she says. “At that time, people were not moving the way people normally used to.”
Waking up at 01h00 to make the doughy treat before commencing N$2 dollar sales at 06h00, Ndeshi pushed through and is happy to be back on the street despite the long hours of mask wearing.
“I feel okay but, sometimes, maybe if I don’t feel okay – when there’s not too much customer – I just remove my mask to breath a bit,” she says.
“I’m just happy to be working. I do need more help and for people to come support. If the government can help us even with that N$750 again, maybe I will just add to my stuff and continue with my business.”
While the impact of the pandemic on single mothers in Namibia is substantial, the pressure and reliance on women may also extend to two-parent households. This has been the case for *Tara Johnson who is a married mother of two as well as a teacher at a private school in the capital.
Though Tara has enjoyed a full salary as a fulltime employee throughout the pandemic, her husband has not had any work since December which makes her the family’s only earner.
“I am currently the breadwinner in my house and given what teachers earn this has taken a big toll on us. We have cut on every single part of our lives. I pray if and when Covid-19 hits, it treads lightly,” says Tara who applauds the precautions taken at her school but appreciates that there is still a significant risk of catching the disease.
On 17 April 2021, The Namibian Newspaper reported that of the 185 new Covid-19 infections recorded, 30 of them were pupils from different schools and eight were teachers.
Though Tara is navigating her own challenges, she is also cognizant of the changes in the girl learners at her school now that they have returned to in-person learning.
“I have noticed a lot of daydreaming and being absent from a lot of the girls I teach,” she says.
“I have read of more neglect, assault or molestation. I teach English and art and can easily pick up when a learner writes a certain way what they are actually saying.”
When one considers the grim global trend, the so-called “shadow pandemic” of escalating cases of sexual and gender based violence and the fact that many women and girls have had to shelter in place with their abusers during lockdown or amid stay-at-home orders, Tara’s observations are chilling.
On 20 November 2020, The Namibian Newspaper reported that “The Ministry of Education, Arts and Culture confirmed that a total of 3 323 girls were impregnated during this period. Most of these girls did not return when schools reopened in September, because of fear and stigma, thus abruptly cutting their school year short.”
These teen pregnancies must be considered against the backdrop of Namibia’s epidemic of child rape which saw 109 girls and 11 boys raped in August and September of last year.
The United Nations policy brief on the impact of the pandemic on women states that “as the COVID-19 pandemic deepens economic and social stress coupled with restricted movement and social isolation measures, gender-based violence is increasing exponentially”.
Namibia is no exception and as Taryn worries over the girl learners in her class, Dr. Esperance Luvindao sheds light on the pandemic’s effect on Namibia’s women healthcare workers.
According to reports by the United Nations, “globally, women make up 70 percent of the health workforce and are more likely to be front-line health workers, especially nurses, midwives and community health workers.” Women also make up the majority of cleaners, laundry and catering staff at health facilities. This puts women at an increased risk of exposure to Covid-19.
“I know where I work and how exposed I am,” says Dr. Luvindao who works as a general practitioner at a state hospital in northern Namibia. “When I go home, I have to make sure to keep my distance from my family. And I don’t go home if I’m having flu like symptoms. My family come first.”
In March of this year, The Namibian Newspaper reported that “nationally, more than 1 600 healthcare workers have tested positive for Covid-19 thus far.”
“Being a woman healthcare worker is a lot at any time. During Covid-19, all of that is multiplied,” says Dr. Luvindao who asks us to imagine being a women in full PPE while you’re on your period and your tampon or pad is completely full.
“Mind you, we have a limited supply of PPE so I can’t just decide to go to the bathroom if my tampon is full. I can’t afford to go to the bathroom because as soon as I go to the bathroom and I remove my pants or whatever the case is, I’m no longer sterile. Then I need to get into another PPE which I also don’t have the luxury of doing.”
Having read testimonies from various women doctors and nurses posted in Covid-19 wards around the world, Dr. Luvindao says duty always trumps discomfort.
“You can’t say “no, look, I’m on my period” because what if there is nobody else to cover the shift? These are sacrifices we have to make and it’s an uncomfortable situation. These are things that people don’t talk about readily but they’re happening,” she says before directing our imagination to post-partum doctors and nurses.
“I have seen colleagues unable to breastfeed for weeks because they have to do their shift at a Covid ward. Nurses who are breastfeeding who are sent to the Covid ward are put in a dilemma because they expose their baby to whatever they are exposed to. There is no social distancing between you and your child,” says Luvindao.
“Obviously the pandemic impacts men as well but, unfortunately, as women things always impact us just a little bit more,” she says.
“This is the reality. The sacrifices women make every day to ensure everyone is okay at home and at work are priceless.”
Lamenting the decline of dynamic Covid-19 coverage in the Namibian media highlighting the continued severity of the pandemic which eventually results in increased cases that land squarely healthcare workers shoulders as well the shortage of staff, medication and particularly contraceptives, Dr. Luvindao stands on the frontline with myriad women and mothers courageously holding the fort.
As the pandemic rages on and working mothers take on increased invisible and unpaid labour in the household, sexual and gender based violence soars, single mothers survive on one income often informally earned without health insurance or social security, when offering support and gauging impact during this time, one must consider the unique experience as well as the particular needs of women and girls.
This “starts with women as leaders, with equal representation and decision-making power. Measures to protect and stimulate the economy, from cash transfers to credits and loans must be targeted at women. Social safety nets must be expanded. Unpaid care work must be recognised and valued as a vital contribution to the economy,” says UN Secretary-General António Guterres.
“I urge governments to put women and girls at the centre of their efforts to recover from Covid-19.”
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