By Genevieve Riccoboni

As of 14 April 2020, there have been over 15,000 reported cases of COVID-19 on the African continent, and the world is bracing itself to see to what extent African countries will be affected by the virus. WILPF sections across the continent are pushing back against misinformation and, using grassroots networks, are raising awareness about the specific risks that vulnerable populations face during the pandemic.

Past epidemics, including Ebola and HIV/AIDS, have disproportionately affected African countries. Centuries of colonialism, conflict, authoritarianism, and neoliberal austerity and privatisation regimes have weakened many countries’ health and social protection systems. COVID-19 would add an additional layer onto current structural health crises, including poverty, malnutrition, HIV, tuberculosis, and malaria. There are existing shortages of doctors, medicines and medical supplies, and hospital beds.

African sections respond to misinformation

WILPF sections throughout Africa, including in Burkina Faso, Cameroon, the DRC, and Sudan, have been acting early to help flatten the curve. They have been leveraging local grassroots networks to start awareness-raising campaigns and initiatives, pushing back against misinformation and sharing public health guidelines.

In Cameroon, which currently has over 848 cases of COVID-19, WILPF Cameroon is responding to misinformation about the risks that the virus poses.

“[There have been] widespread rumors about the alleged ‘invulnerability’ of black Africans to COVID-19,” says Sylvie Ndongmo, President of the Cameroon section and Africa Regional Representative. “Many Cameroonians have often been exposed to false information that the virus cannot withstand hot temperatures in regions like Africa, and that traditional herbal treatments are effective at curing it.”

The section has been focused on correcting these false rumors, promoting respect for the government regulations, and pushing back against stigmatisation and hate speech. In her capacity as Africa Regional Representative, Sylvie Ndongmo has also sent letters to sections and groups throughout Africa, urging them to take action in response to the pandemic.

Strengthening trust in public health guidance

It is crucial in a pandemic that people have access to accurate and reliable information about risks and prevention. Government public health officials are often best placed to provide this kind of information to the broader population. However, many governments worldwide have manipulated the pandemic to impose extreme and disproportionate lockdown measures, often with brutal and violent enforcement that violates human rights. These measures have further eroded an existing lack of trust in public institutions and government information.

Both WILPF Cameroon and WILPF Burkina Faso have been working to address this precise issue, to ensure that people adhere to life-saving public health guidance.

For WILPF Burkina Faso, the work against COVID-19 represents the key focus for all humanity for the rest of 2020. Thus, WILPF Burkina Faso is making itself available on the front line for advocacy and awareness-raising in order to help respond to the pandemic.

WILPF Burkina Faso has developed a social media campaign around best practices for COVID-19 response.  This campaign explains why it is so important to listen to official sources of information about public health and observe government guidelines, and warns against risky behaviors such as self-medicating.

“To curb the spread of COVID-19, we must strictly follow the instructions issued by the government. Let’s not give in to fear,” reads one social media graphic developed by WILPF Burkina Faso in their #COVID19BestPractices campaign.

Leveraging grassroots networks, WILPF Burkina Faso has also formed a COVID-19 women rapid response group. This group is conducting direct community work as well as advocacy on key issues, including ensuring access to information for people with disabilities, providing personal protective equipment to frontline workers, acting against price gouging, and sharing the risks around handling money.

Irregular internet access and a gender digital divide often limit access to up-to-date information throughout the continent, most significantly affecting women and girls and people who live in poverty and conflict-affected areas. In Sudan, for example, only 33% of people accessed the internet in 2019.

With this digital divide in mind, WILPF Sudan has prepared flyers containing information on COVID-19 and has been distributing them when possible, in order to prevent the further spread of the virus. They have been doing this work in partnership with other widely-recognised grassroots groups which grew out of the revolution. The pandemic has deepened their connections with other local activists, as they work collectively to respond to COVID-19 in the Sudanese context.

Disproportionate risks to vulnerable groups

A key issue is that even with widespread education on the risks of the virus, many people still lack access to the adequate water and sanitation products and facilities that they need to stay safe. For example, workers in the informal sector, disproportionately women, face heightened risks both to their personal health and economic security during the pandemic. Working may mean contracting the virus, but not working may mean not being able to put food on the table.

“Many displaced women work as tea sellers and food sellers in the streets and have great exposure to the disease,” Ikhlas Mahmoud, president of WILPF Sudan, notes. “In addition, women in Sudan as well as other conflict-affected countries stand at the frontlines since they dominate the health work, humanitarian and voluntary work in the conflict-affected parts of the country.” Furthermore, there have been rising cases of domestic violence as people shelter at home with their abusers.

In the DRC, which has also been significantly affected by armed conflict and has also suffered an Ebola outbreak only a few years ago, there are similar risks to vulnerable populations.

“How can we ensure that these very appropriate sanitary rules are respected when we think about the untimely cuts in electricity and water supply … when we think of the street children, called “Shegués”, the homeless, the populations living in slums and ghettos, the people living in overcrowded conditions, prisoners, migrants, displaced persons and refugees in camps?” asks Annie Matundu Mbambi, president of WILPF DRC.

The work continues post-pandemic

Ultimately, the work of WILPF sections throughout Africa to raise awareness around COVID-19 is part of broader work to build a society built on permanent peace and socio-economic justice.

Annie Matundu Mbambi echoes broader WILPF calls to use the pandemic as an opportunity to challenge the unequal structures and systems in our world.

“As women activists, we must try to develop, during this confinement period, approaches that can progressively reduce gender inequalities in order to offer the world social justice as well as sustainable peace after the pandemic…confinement gives us the opportunity to be creative and, therefore, to reinvent the way we raise awareness…Let us carry out actions of solidarity, in equality and justice, in the name of peace.”