A deadly pandemic hits at an alarming rate and brings untold pain and hardship upon the whole world.

All of a sudden, life came to a standstill as public health and economic issues escalated, dominating the long lists of crises the deadly pandemic has given birth to.

Since then, efforts are being made globally to contain the spread of the virus while help is sought for the affected.

As part of a pandemic response, the World Health Organization outlined measures to contain the virus which countries in the world are to comply with.

The World Bank Group and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) equally demonstrated their support to spur faster action on COVID-19 response in African countries by mobilizing their partners in the fight.

Massive support trickled down under various emergency packages to affected countries including funding, resources and policy advice was meant to help prevent, detect, and respond to the coronavirus pandemic which most African countries including our beloved country, Ghana was a beneficiary.

Though response was good globally, efforts towards achieving positive results in the fight dwindle as another canker which can be termed a ‘social evil’ emerges, fast wreaking havoc across the world.

The ‘social evil’ only known as ‘Stigma’ has a beloved partner called ‘Discrimination’ with a perilous offspring referred to as ‘Violence’. In my estimation, fighting it is even becoming scarier than the deadly coronavirus pandemic itself.

Arguably, like the Biblical cankerworm, it is gradually eating into the fabric of the society at an alarming rate which keeps tongues wagging; not only that, it has ruffled feathers too and raised eyebrows leaving many people completely worried. 

Stigmatization is actually an old enemy of the world but unfortunately well awake now exacerbating the fight against COVID-19 which has provoked a series of discriminatory acts across continents, with different groups as targets.

In the era of the ‘new normal’ which we currently find ourselves, it is interesting to know that this old enemy is now being accepted too as the ‘new normal enemy’ as its attacks are being intensified across the world which remains a phenomenon yet to unravel.

Despite the scarcity of data on this phenomenon, the discriminatory incidents reported in newspaper articles and on social media seem to confirm that this is a global phenomenon. 

All these incidents seem to confirm that, in times of crisis and great uncertainty, especially of such magnitude as the one we are currently experiencing, people tend to look for scapegoats in order to vent their frustrations, worries and fears. 

Stigma is discrimination against an identifiable group of people, place, or a nation. It is associated with a lack of knowledge about how COVID-19 spreads, a need to blame someone, fears about disease and death, and gossip that spreads rumours and myths. Stigma can lead to labeling, stereotyping, discrimination of external icon, and other negative behaviour towards others. For example, stigma and discrimination can occur when people link a disease, such as COVID-19, with a population, community, or nationality.

This supposed ‘new normal enemy’ called stigma hurts everyone by creating more fear or anger toward ordinary people instead of focusing on the disease that is causing the problem.

In the era of the novel coronavirus pandemic, we have witnessed this enemy unleashed its excruciating attacks in high proportions across the world, making more people to hide their symptoms or disease, keeping them from seeking healthcare immediately, and preventing individuals from adopting healthy behaviours. An indication that stigma makes it more difficult to control the spread of the pandemic which is a major concern. 

The UN Secretary General, António Guterres in a policy brief on COVID-19 and Human Rights said “the instability and fear that the pandemic engenders is exacerbating existing human rights concerns, such as discrimination against certain groups”,

Also Ms E. Tendayi Achiume and Mr Fernand de Varennes, who are both UN Special Rapporteurs on contemporary forms of racism and on minority issues, also reported on COVID-19-related attacks against minority groups worldwide.

The pandemic indeed reinforced the targeting of the “other”. While the profile of victims varies from country to country, there seems to be a common pattern in discriminatory acts occurring during the pandemic: more often than not the target is generally the ‘other’, i.e. the foreigner, someone belonging to an ethnic or cultural minority, etc. 

Since the emergence of COVID-19, we have witnessed stigmatization among specific populations, and the rise of harmful stereotypes.

According to a report by ten (10) UNESCO Chairs dealing with human rights and social inclusion, the advent of the first phase of the COVID-19 contagion, those who suffered the most from discrimination were Asians and people of Asian descent, who were frequently targeted for causing the pandemic and its spread. 

As reported by UNESCO Chairs from Italy, Spain, Greece, Denmark and the Netherlands, discriminatory episodes consisted of verbal assaults in public places, denigrating campaigns on social media, the boycott of their business activities and, in some cases, difficulties in access to educational institutions. 

In South Korea, 89-year-old Lee Man-Hee, who is the Founder of Shincheonji church and some of his leaders are being persecuted; the church, his peaceful NGO (HWPL) have been under threat of dissolution on the grounds that they have contributed to the spread of the pandemic and obstructed efforts to contain the virus since the news of one of his church members who tested to COVID-19 broke in February 2020. 

He was subsequently arrested on Saturday August 1, 2020 by the Korean authorities on the pretext that the move is to allow investigation be conducted into the matter without his interference.

In addition, over 5,500 cases of human rights violations including coercive conversion have been reported since the outbreak of the novel coronavirus in South Korea, many of which are women.

This sad happening in the Asian country is just a typical example of many unfortunate developments rearing ugly heads across the world which has received wide condemnation from the Human Rights Reporters Ghana (HRRG), a Ghanaian based NGO including International and Regional Organizations, Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) and Non-Governmental Organisations across the globe.

Also joining the protestors on August 10, are 155 youth-led organizations with one million members from 62 countries around the world who in a joint letter to addressed to the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and the UN affiliates, including the UN Office for the Coordination of the Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) requested that the discrimination against Shincheonji Church, its leader, Mr Lee Man-hee and a UN ECOSOC-affiliated organization named Heavenly Culture, World Peace, Restoration of Light (HWPL), he owns be halted. But sad enough, the whole world is yet to see any response from the South Korean Government in regards to the matter. The question is, for how long will it take the authorities to respond?

The truth remains, in the midst of all these attacks, women and girls in Africa are among the most vulnerable groups exposed to the negative impacts of the coronavirus pandemic.

For example in Ghana, the barrier to socialization was broken due to stigmatization which became a nightmare during a three weeks partial lockdown imposed by the government to contain the virus. Within the period, a lot of atrocities were perpetrated against many Ghanaians with women and girls at the harsh receiving end.

During the period, the risk of intimate partner violence, sexual harassment, and abuse of women and girls became a distressing challenge. 

Arguably, this is not just a typical Ghanaian case but a global phenomenon which hit Africa to the core owing to the countless of problems the continent is bedeviled of which large population size, poverty, hunger, disease and violence among others can be blamed exacerbated by the compounding economic and the health crisis induced by the impact of the pandemic. 

On business grounds, women in Africa are overrepresented at the front lines of the response to the pandemic; women, as direct caregivers, are more directly exposed to the virus. 

Over 60 percent of Africa’s health workforce and essential social service providers are female, even as high as 91 percent in Egypt. Second, back at home, women shoulder far more care work than men—up to 11 times more in places like Mali.

Additional care needs from school closures as a result of the lockdowns and elderly relatives who need to be specially taken care of mean that women have to provide even more care services at home while still working, mainly because of entrenched traditional norms on gender roles in many African countries. The extra care work at home from the lockdowns is estimated at around 4 hours per day. African women in the labour force are more vulnerable to income and job loss. Compounding these difficulties, women are at a higher risk of job and income losses during the pandemic. 

The coronavirus pandemic primarily affects the types of jobs often done by women in service sectors such as air travel, hospitality, tourism, food and beverage, and retail services in general.

The impact of border closures and lockdowns on industries along the supply chain are further exposing women to income losses, especially in countries integrated into global value chains, such as light manufacturing in Ethiopia where more than 50 percent of textile workers are women who are also reputed to the lowest-paid garment factory workers around the world. Furthermore, women’s generally weaker positions in the labour market for example, with lower earnings and less seniority than men as well as higher informality in their work (89 percent of women in Africa are employed informally) with no employment security and benefits leaves them more vulnerable and easier to lay off by employers than men in the wake of COVID-19.

Judging from the above indicators, it is obvious to know that the impact of COVID-19 on women as far as business and social life is concerned are indeed worrying and calls for action to save our women from unnecessary pressures which violate their freedom and fundamental human rights.

Yes, the pandemic may have brought us untold woes which we ought to collaborate and deal with but certainly cannot be blamed for the atrocities and violence’s being perpetrated against each other which takes greater toll on our women and their businesses which put them at risk. 

What we should have been doing is concentrating all our efforts and attention on fighting the virus instead of fighting each other through stigmatization, discrimination and violence means.

For women working as first responders and in other essential services, governments should promote and accommodate flexible working arrangements that account for workers’ family responsibilities. Because women more often work in economic sectors that are hardest hit, they require specific financial assistance to maintain their living standards through one-off income support in cash and/or in-kind such as suspension of rent and utility payments. These policies would help affected women and girls stay afloat in their homes (avoiding evictions) and continue to support their families.

Our women deserve better rather than being treated as slaves which is unlawful and goes against their rights. Safeguarding our women’s lives against stigmatization, discrimination and violence attacks should be a collective responsibility which we must be committed to at all times especially in the era of COVID-19.

Let’s us all rise up in unison and condemn stigmatization, discrimination and violence against women, while COVID-19 fight evolves.

Efforts at making gains in achieving the SDGs in these trying moments should not be lost on us as it offers a real opportunity to drive lasting change for women’s right equality, and to bring transformative change in women’s and men’s lives. 

While at it, I call on African governments to take bold steps to mainstream gender in their responses to the crisis. 

Policymakers should devise innovative ways of receiving reports of violence during the pandemic such as special dedicated hotlines, apps, and use of coded messages to thwart efforts of abusers who often monitor or restrict access of victims to the outside world.

I believe wining the fight against the deadly coronavirus pandemic can be much easier only by first defeating our worst enemy, the ‘social evil,’ by unmasking stigmatization, its lovely partner; discrimination and prevent it from giving birth to its offspring called violence by ensuring we report regularly and also take the appropriate action on cases of violence being perpetrated particularly against our women.

This should be made as easy as possible. 

The writer is a staunch human rights defender, Gender advocate and Founder/ Executive Director of Human Rights Reporters Ghana (HRRG).

Credit: Joseph Kobla Wemakor

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