As I’m packing my bags for home, by the way the President (E.D Mnangagwa) has just announced the lockdown is beginning on Monday and today is Saturday, I’m wondering if my generation is cursed or not? The announcement innocently sounded as if my graduation will be delayed by 21 days, which I later learnt it is indefinite. From socio-political instability to economic challenges, all I know is I’m a Zimbabwean young person with hope to make it in life one of these days. Such hope!
The hope I carry with myself as each lockdown day passes. The reality of COVID-19, which caught the world off guard, with many countries having been brought to their knees. The only connection I have with the whole world is social media. I’m at the mercy of misinformation all shared in the name of keeping each other updated.
I smiled, I had bumped into some source of hope, a piece of information comforting me that because of the colour of my skin and that I’m in Africa, I’m immune to the Coronavirus. Refreshing, right? Only to find out that it was all a myth. While I was still trying to deal with this, a pop up message from sister from college even got me more worried. The message directed me to a Reuter’s media link on March 28, reporting a looming shortage of condoms due to the closure of the world’s largest condom manufacturer Malaysia Karex Bhd, responsible for 20% of the world’s condom production. I had to suspend my socio-economic and educational uncertainties for a moment. My Sexual and Reproductive Health was now under threat!
The World Health Organisation (WHO) Director General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus is on record emphasizing that all countries must strike a fine balance between protecting its citizenry, minimizing economic and social disruption, and respecting human rights. These rights include access to and availability of SRH services and information.
When health systems are overwhelmed, countries have to make difficult decisions to balance between demands of responding directly to the pandemic and provision of other social and health services which becomes a more challenging task. During public health emergencies, human and financial resources are often diverted from various health programmes to respond to the infectious disease outbreaks. Nevertheless SRH services and rights should be respected regardless of the pandemic as we cannot afford to have these curtailed.
Outbreaks such as the COVID-19 pandemic affect women and men differently. It exacerbates the already existing gender inequalities. Vulnerable members of community such as people living with disabilities, the youth, and the elderly are the mostly affected groups during this pandemic. Evidence from past epidemics indicate that containment efforts divert resources and attention from routine health services including pre and post-natal health care and contraceptives, exacerbating often times already limited access to SRH services. This has had adverse effects on sexual and reproductive health services.
Closure of non-emergency services and transport restrictions due to lockdown imply that suddenly accessibility and availability of SRH information, services and commodities such as condoms, contraceptive pills, Anti-Retroviral (ART) drugs risk being deemed non-essential and have therefore become a luxury.
In particular, young people`s sexual and reproductive health needs do not pause for pandemics, yet amidst the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak, we are watching health systems bear the brunt, stretching their ability to respond to the virus itself, and the essential SRH services girls need, now more than ever.
According to UNFPA, if there are major service disruptions due to COVID-19, an additional 7 million unintended pregnancies are expected to occur. Research has also shown that over half of unintended pregnancies end in abortion and in our case, mainly unsafe abortion. Unsafe abortion in Zimbabwe has been one of the primary causes of maternal morbidity and mortality.
Over 800 million women and girls menstruate every day worldwide, yet across the globe they face challenges of properly managing their cycle. The social stigmas and taboos surrounding menstruation often prevent women and girls from attending work and school. Even when they attend while menstruating, the lack of access to menstrual hygiene such as private toilets and hand washing facilities, and lack of menstrual hygiene education can prevent women and girls from reaching their full potential in the classroom, workplace and at home. We can only imagine the plight of young women and adolescent girls in this pandemic era, with the exorbitant sanitary wear costs and acute water shortages countrywide. It all remains a raw imagination!
Violence against women and girls remains a major global public health concern. Women and girls are have been exposed to Gender-Based Violence with no place to report their grievances because of the lockdown restrictions, movement have been restricted, most service providers are focusing mostly on COVID-19 response. As is the case globally, quarantines or home lockdowns inevitably increase the risks of GBV against women and adolescent girls, particularly with regards to domestic and family violence. The recurrence of incidents might increase and safety options become even more limited. Furthermore financial challenges due to limited livelihood opportunities during the lockdown raised tensions in a lot of households, resulting in women and children being abused out of frustration.
Prioritisation of COVID-19 response at the expense of other essential services such as SRH by government has adversely affected communities. Government must therefore prioritise the needs of young people and ensure that they continue to access quality SRH Services during the lockdown.
There is need to rethink and strategize how to effectively reach young people with sexual and reproductive health related information and services during this pandemic. Access to information and a comprehensive package of youth friendly services enables young people to make informed decisions about their bodies and the future they seek for themselves.
SRH is an essential service no matter the circumstances with that said, SRH remains a priority!
By Esinathy Sibanda – Web For Life Co-ordinator