Covid-19 patients are being treated with oxygen at the Tshwane District Hospital in Pretoria, South Africa, July 10, 2020.
Covid-19 patients are being treated with oxygen at the Tshwane District Hospital in Pretoria, South Africa, July 10, 2020.

JOHANNESBURG - Women in Africa have been disproportionately affected by government measures meant to stop the spread of coronavirus, according to women’s advocates. Graca Machel and Melinda Gates say they are urging African governments to take action to reverse what they worry is a harmful trend.

Massive lockdowns and government-imposed restrictions have helped stanch the spread of coronavirus in African nations, health officials say. But, women’s rights advocates say, these lockdowns have hit women disproportionately hard.

FILE - An elderly woman reacts as a health worker collects a sample for coronavirus testing during the screening and testing campaign aimed to combat the spread of COVID-19 at Sphamandla informal settlement in Katlehong, south of Johannesburg.

Women’s rights activist Graca Machel said she learned this by making a concerted effort in recent months to seek out African women and listen to them. They reported that viral restrictions put a serious damper on the informal economy -- which is, she said, a huge threat to families’ well-being.

“Our economies in Africa are mostly informal and that's where most of women are, and this is where they get their source of income to care for their families...So it was quite clear to me that the impact of poverty was disproportionately very heavy on women," said Machel. "So, nothing more logical than to say, ‘If you have to have a proper response to this and if you want to have any kind of a proper redesigning, I mean, the reconstruction, you have to bring this to the center and listen to their voices and aspirations.’”

Machel, a Mozambican politician who served as education minister, made several recommendations, among them to give women a voice in government decisions, invest in women who work in the food supply chain, strive for greater equality in the workplace and narrow gender-based education gaps. 

Her call is being supported on the other side of the world, by American philanthropist Melinda Gates. She co-founded the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the world’s largest private charitable organization. 

FILE - Melinda Gates.

Gates says she is also concerned about an emerging “shadow pandemic” for women and children. Although data from the World Health Organization appear to show that the virus itself is significantly more fatal for males, Gates says many women and children are losing their lives and livelihoods on the sidelines.

“If you go back to the time of the Ebola crisis in the four affected countries, there was a shadow pandemic that went right alongside Ebola and that it had to do with maternal mortality and infant and child deaths," said Gates. "We are already seeing this in the health systems and the countries most affected already by COVID-19. So we have to look, Number One, at the health system. Number Two, have to look at the economics of how we help women build back and we build back better. Otherwise, what we know is they're being pushed out of the labor force.”

Machel noted that this pandemic could be a portal to shift power to women, whom, she believes, have handled the viral crisis well. COVID-19 is the disease sparked by the coronavirus.

“The leadership of women has been proven to me, the one which changes the rules of the game. Women bring minds and hearts together," said Machel. "And because of that, we even realized recently that countries which are led by women did respond much better to the COVID crisis than countries led by men. So nothing more clear is evidence that the more we are in challenges, the better the time to bring women to the center stage and to have leadership, female leadership to lead.”

Melinda Gates has a similar belief, saying women have a lens on society that is different from men’s and when you put women in charge, they create policies that benefit women and families. 

Special Section