For most of us, the year 2020 started off full of promise. Twenty-five years after the Beijing Platform for Action, there was widespread acknowledgement that this was the year to break new ground for economic and social advancement. Instead, 5 months into the year, the entire World is in the throes of COVID-19, a pandemic of such unimaginable scale and destruction, it can only be described as Calamitous.
In the months since COVID-19 was first discovered, it has had ripple effects with devastating impacts on global economies and supply chains. The crisis, characterized by border closures and lockdowns, has already become an economic and labour market shock, impacting not only supply but also demand. Several businesses are facing serious challenges, with the real threat of significant declines in revenue, insolvencies, and job losses — particularly for small and medium enterprises (SMEs).
The economic impact of the pandemic is compounded for women and girls who are generally earning less, saving less, and holding insecure jobs or living close to poverty. While early reports reveal that more men are dying as a result of COVID-19, the general health of women is adversely impacted through the reallocation of resources and priorities, including sexual and reproductive health services. Unpaid care work has increased, with children out-of-school, heightened care needs of older persons and overwhelmed health services.
The battle for survival has taken centre stage and the limited gains on gender equality made in the past decades are at risk of being rolled back. The pandemic has deepened pre-existing inequalities, exposing vulnerabilities in social, political and economic systems which are in turn amplifying the impacts of the pandemic. 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.
The Bad News
The impact of COVID-19 on the global economy and Nigeria, in particular, is staggering. We are hurtling towards a global recession, with Nigeria’s economy projected to contract by 3.4% in 2020. Juxtaposed against our 2.6% population growth rate, there are very turbulent times ahead.
Early studies of the impact of COVID-19 suggest that women’s economic and productive lives will be affected disproportionately and differently from men. Across the globe, women earn less, save less, hold less secure jobs and are more likely to be employed in the informal sector. As women take on greater care demands at home, their jobs will also be disproportionately affected by cuts and lay-offs. The first round of layoffs has been particularly acute in the services sector, including retail, hospitality and tourism, where women are overrepresented. The situation is worse in developing economies like Nigeria where the vast majority of women’s employment is in the informal economy.
Responses to the question “What does this ‘coronavirus monster’ really mean for your business?” posed by the International Institute of Rural Reconstruction (IIRR) to agri-based female entrepreneurs, revealed a high level of stress with the respondents citing low sales, reduced or closed markets, limited mobility, no income alternatives, and no safety nets as major challenges.
Women and girls have unique health needs, but they are less likely to have access to quality health services, essential medicines and vaccines, maternal and reproductive health care, or insurance coverage for routine and catastrophic health costs. Adding the pandemic unto the already bleak picture, it’s not hard to see how damaging the current situation is to women.
Women are also more likely to be front-line health workers, especially nurses, midwives and community health workers. They are also the majority of health facility service-staff – such as cleaners, laundry, catering – and as such, they are more likely to be exposed to the virus.
Violence against women and girls is increasing globally as the COVID-19 pandemic combines with economic and social stresses, and measures to restrict contact and movement. Crowded homes, substance abuse, limited access to services and support are exacerbating these conditions. At the same time, support services are struggling. Judicial, police and health services that are the first responders for women are overwhelmed, have shifted priorities, or are otherwise unable to help. Civil society groups are also affected by the restrictions of movement and/or reallocation of resources.
Keeping Our Heads Above Water
Recognizing the ways in which the pandemic has impacted us individually is critical to staying ahead and mitigating our vulnerabilities. Here are a few helpful tips, but they will differ across individual circumstances.
- Create a Savings Buffer – Draw up a budget, pay close attention to expenses, cut out any excesses and task yourself to operate your business and/or live way below your means. See how much further you can make your cash go and consciously put money aside regularly to help you withstand any sudden shocks. Cash is still king.
- Have Alternative sources of income – Two key takeaways from the economic meltdown – “No income is promised” and “some of the things we classify as assets are really liabilities” – require that we explore alternative revenue-generating opportunities. Can you turn a hobby into an income opportunity? Get educated about wealth creation and diversify your savings.
- Re-negotiate and Re-price – Take advantage of opportunities to revise pricing on any existing facilities or contracts. Don’t be afraid to ask for a discount, a free add-on or a payment break. Articulate what your request is and be ready to formalize through a letter or email.
COVID-19 has confirmed that our health remains our most valuable asset. Mental and physical wellness combined with strong immune systems have proven to be our first line of defence. Investing in our physical and mental wellness is a necessity not a luxury. Eat Well, Rest Well, Play Well. If you don’t have Health Insurance, please research your options and sign up to a scheme that works for you.
Perhaps the most important lesson from this pandemic is that we are only as strong as our weakest link. Pursuing our individual objectives without consideration for vulnerable sectors of our community and the society as a whole is futile. At some point, the chickens will come home to roost.
In the glaring face of failures across multiple levels of our society, we must take individual and collective action as women, to do better. It is time to take personal accountability for the failures we see all around us and commit to being the change we want to see. We must speak up for what is right, get involved in governance and support more women to run for office. We need more women in positions of authority giving a voice to the gender perspective and ensuring that women’s rights are upheld and improved.We must do all within our power to increase female representation at all levels of leadership. It is time to Pull Together for a Better Tomorrow.
Ngover Ihyembe-Nwankwo is currently the Head, Coverage at Rand Merchant Bank Nigeria and the Chairperson of the Executive Council at WIMBIZ (Women in Management, Business & Public Service) where she is focused on deepening and re-enforcing the Organization’s role as the catalyst that elevates the status and influence of women and their contribution to nation building. She is deeply passionate about advocacy for Gender Parity and supporting women to achieve their full potential. Ngover holds a Master’s degree in International Management from the University of Exeter and a Bachelor’s Degree in Combined Social Sciences (Politics, Philosophy & Economics) from the University of Durham both in the United Kingdom. She is a Corporate and Institutional Banking Executive with 20 years’ experience in Financial Services across a wide range of functions.