By Mary Hearty

Two years later, interruption to essential health services as a result of the pandemic response efforts are still being broadly felt, with women and girls being affected the most.

New World Health Organization (WHO) global analysis shows that as many as 40% of African countries are reporting continued disruptions to sexual, reproductive, maternal, newborn, child and adolescent health services, hence posing a serious cause of concern.

Moreover, one survey of 11 African countries revealed that more than half saw a 16% increase in maternal deaths between February and May in 2020 compared to the same period in 2019.

In 2021, the statistics decreased slightly to 11% but the actual number could be much higher because home deaths are excluded from this data.

Most of the planned interventions such as clinical trials for vaccines exclude pregnant women thus, they can only benefit from scientific progresses very late.

“The gravity and extent of these consequences cannot be precisely over. Interruptions to health services are exacerbating women’s already limited access to healthcare especially in the African region. And short term measures to restore services to pre-pandemic levels are not enough,” Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa affirmed during a media briefing on COVID-19 and its impact on women, ahead of the International Women’s Day.

She also said that teenage pregnancies and incidences of violence against women are increasing exponentially with the situation exacerbated by pandemic-related closures.

In Kenya for instance, Dr Moeti mentioned that a newspaper in the British Medical Journal reported that adolescent girls who could not attend school for six months were twice at risk of getting pregnant, and three times more likely never to return to class.

Global statistics reveal that one in four women is experiencing more frequent conflicts in their homes.

As many as 45% of women have also reported that they or someone they know has been subjected to gender-based violence since the onset of COVID-19.

In the first 21-day national lockdown, South Africa reported 87,000 incidence of gender-based violence. In Nigeria, it was disclosed that between January and May 2020, there were 717 rape cases.

Furthermore, there was reduced access by human rights defenders working on issues like early marriage, harmful practices against widows, female genital mutilation, which also increased with school closure,

A UNDP study notes that women made up only 24% of COVID-19 taskforces and at the time of that study, 26 taskforces shockingly had no women at all. Meaning there were victims locked in with their abusers.

Meanwhile, COVID-19 is also inflicting expensive economic damage with a pandemic pushing more women and girls into extreme poverty.

“Predictions are that it could to take almost another decade before spiraling poverty raise are restored to pre-pandemic level,” Dr Moeti said.

According to UN-Women, 247 million women and girls aged 15 and above were living on less than one dollar and 90 cents last year due to the economic impacts caused by COVID-19.

More than half of them- 54% were in sub-Saharan Africa, which is disproportionately higher considering that the whole of Africa constitutes 16% of the world’s population.

Besides, existing gender inequities have deepened significantly too. For instance, women constitute 70% of the health and social workforce and were at the forefront of the pandemic response.  Yet, in the African region, 85% of national COVID-19 taskforces are led by men.

Dr Moeti urged African countries, donors and partners to dig deep to make the kind of investments necessary to strengthen health systems.

“To protect women’s access now and into the future, these health systems need to be capable of withstanding future shocks while maintaining delivery of primary healthcare,” she said.

She also stated that gender inequity as a determinant need to be woven into the design and delivery of interventions to improve health. Investing in women’s economic participation, livelihoods and health is an investment in the health of future generations of Africans.

Dr Francine Ntoumi, President and Director General, Congolese Foundation for Medical Research, stated how important women’s mental health is during this pandemic, so it also needs to be addressed.

“Women’s mental health is crucial as they are at the centre of the families. They care for young and sick people in the family which exposes them to mental illness as they are psychologically overwhelmed,” Dr. Ntoumi said.