The number of coronavirus cases across African countries has grown to 88,172, according to the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on May 19 2020. The latest update showed that deaths tallied at 2,834 while 33,863 patients have recovered. North Africa is the hardest-hit of the five geographic regions in the continent, followed by West, South, East and Central. In countries such as Ethiopia regulations have been challenging for rural communities, Ethiopian authorities have closed schools and universities, banned large gatherings and are promoting social distancing and hand washing to protect people from the virus. They have identified two large hospitals, one for testing and the other for treatment of Coronavirus patients, but as in many other African countries, there is a lack of tests and personal protective equipment for doctors and medical personnel.
Social distancing is a major challenge for many of the rural communities. More than 80 percent of Ethiopia’s population lives in rural areas and relies heavily on agriculture or causal daily labor for livelihoods. There are widespread concerns that many people will lose their only source of income if they follow government directives and have no reserves for themselves or their families to fall back on. Soap, sanitizers and clean water are not readily available for many people.
Many of the rural poor, including both those with and without productive assets, depend on mobile livelihoods and on seasonal and migrant work, including remittances. Lockdowns restrict both movements in relation to work as well as returning home, sometimes leaving them stranded and excluded from family support. It is vital to differentiate between global and local supply chains, which will suffer in different ways. For example, in Uganda, supermarkets are open but small, informal markets are closed. In past crises, governments have focused on the survival of global value chains over local ones. Small, rural businesses are more likely to close permanently than large international ones.
Rural women bear a disproportionate burden of the COVID-19 crisis not only as healthcare workers, but also from the burden of care of out-of-school children and the sick. Furthermore, the reduction in economic opportunities, the reduction in women’s reproductive and health services, and increases in gender based violence. For those countries that do have social protection programs in rural areas, these services are rarely delivered electronically in the poorest countries, exposing them to distribution disruptions. Programs that are linked to health or education can also pose additional barriers to accessing essential income if these are not removed or relaxed. School feeding, one of the most common social protection instruments in rural areas, has been cut, leaving hundreds of millions of school children without their daily school meal. School closure in rural areas also heightens the risk of child marriage, and child labor.
Women, and particularly rural women, are bearing a disproportionate burden of the COVID-19 crisis across a number of dimensions. Women are on the front line of the defense against COVID-19, representing the majority of health workers in Africa.
Due to prevailing social norms in most parts of Africa, and particularly in rural areas, women are expected to bear the brunt of the increased burden of care of the sick, the elderly and school-aged children who have been sent home. The combination of increased care responsibilities and economic crisis may reduce female participation in the labor force, and in many rural areas women represent a disproportionately large share of service workers and informal small-scale traders. As has been shown in previous crises, COVID-19 will likely lead to a redirection of health resources away from reproductive/women’s health, and school closures will lead to an increase in teenage pregnancy and child marriage – both phenomena with negative long-term social and economic effects on women. The crisis is also expected to lead to an increase in gender based violence.
The current crisis forces us to use digital communication systems, replace human work with digital tools where possible and use technology to help target interventions. Both the public and private sector could build on this opportunity to invest in increased access to internet, electricity and other digital resources, including in impoverished areas. All these technological innovations can help farmers to better cope with the constraints of COVID-19 and any future crises or stresses to the food system, while also making agriculture more productive and more attractive to the young.
The short-term response to help minimize the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on the rural poor is critical, but we also need to support the shaping of a “new normal” where rural food systems are resilient profitable and inclusive for poor rural communities. We must advocate for continued education, including through distance learning accessible to adolescent girls and access to digital tools for education, health, psychosocial support and social protection services for adolescents and their families. National help lines should be administered and information be shared through mobile networks. Moreover we must broaden the use of mass media, community radio and digital media to provide children, including adolescents, and their communities with access to information and communication tools. For example, rural agricultural extension networks could be used to disseminate information on health awareness and education around COVID-19 and collect data on local impacts. This may cause and provide relief in the short term.