Psychosocial Needs of Women in Informal Settlements: Creating a Humanities Agenda During and Post COVID-19
- By Professor Nirmala Devi Gopal
COVID-19 is an unexpected virus with unprecedented consequences that has rocked and shocked the global community.
Global and national television as well as alternate news media provide daily and sometimes hourly updates on infection and death rates, while South Africa’s COVID-19 National Command Council relays regular daily reports with information reduced to its lowest common denominators such as the sex, numbers and tangible geographic locations of those who succumb to the virus. This detailed mode of reporting although unprecedented is germane and proper for our democracy.
Now is probably a good time to generate a South African sense of belonging as the virus shows no discrimination based on race, gender, sexual orientation, socio-economic status or geographic location.
Yet understandably, global and national public discourse on the coronavirus concentrates on a medical model of intervention which risks discounting the psychosocial impacts of the virus on the poor and other vulnerable communities, including women living in underprivileged communities and, for the purpose of this opinion piece, in informal settlements.
Women in these settlements, like other individuals, are required by law to exercise social distancing in the limited physical space available to them. This is in addition to roles they have to play such as managing how their children practice social distancing in confined spaces where communal living is the norm as well as being essential for survival.
On 5 April the following headline appeared in an IOL news report by Karishma Dipa: Living Through a Coronavirus Pandemic: Moms Anxious about their Children's Welfare. One of the mothers interviewed was quoted as saying: ‘Members of my large family are always asking to hold and play with my baby but they don’t wash their hands as often as they should and it is difficult to keep a safe distance from them.
‘Their casual approach to the pandemic could result in them contracting the virus and then infecting me and my daughter. The lockdown has been very stressful for me because most of the people in my village have not been taking it seriously enough.’
Similar sentiments on social distancing were expressed in the following tweet on 4 April from President Cyril Ramaphosa: ‘The @UN are aware of specific spatial challenges in Africa that make isolation and distancing difficult.’ pic.twitter.com/4Vz7EN6LOO — Cyril Ramaphosa (@CyrilRamaphosa) (Eye Witness News April 4, 2020.
A coronavirus report in the Daily Maverick online news service stated: ‘Shack settlements are places in which life has never been confined to the indoors. People go out, share bathrooms and need time out on the street. Imported solutions designed for elite and middle-class areas cannot be imposed in these settlements, especially if the objective is to improve health in body and mind.’
Yet many in the rest of the world seem to believe that life during the pandemic is equal for all South Africans. It appears that mothers believe the woes of parenting are universal, ignoring the depressed socio-economic circumstances of the majority. Many believe that sympathising with the cause of women in informal settlements during COVID-19 implies they understand their plight.
Those with unlimited data and Wi-Fi access express pity and believe they are have contributed to the daily struggles of vulnerable women.
This is foolhardy. Unless you have walked the journey of the disadvantaged and poor you cannot pretend to understand. Unless you have lived in or physically been in informal settlements or similar geographic spaces then it is improbable that you understand.
We cannot pretend that women living in informal settlements have the same concerns about their children’s education and facilities as those of their bourgeoisie counterparts when the most immediate focus of the underprivileged is on accessing clean running water and dignified sanitation.
COVID-19 has refocused us. We can no longer disregard the inequalities in South Africa. Yet our responses to COVID-19 remain bourgeoisie and medical.
Will the rest of the world, and Humanities academics in particular, ignore inequalities experienced by women living in informal and slum spaces or will we as an academic community stand up and be counted during this pandemic.
Will the virus coerce academics to reflect on ways to activate aggregate data sets collected from vulnerable communities for plausible community interventions? Have we reflected on aggregating data (previously generated for discipline specific purposes) to emerge with co-ordinated interventions that transcend beyond academic purposes such as attaining qualifications and producing publications? Is it possible that we can show our mettle by testing our individual level of care and commitment for those who have enabled us to have privileged lifestyles? Are we capable of suspending our own needs during these challenging times by investing our energies in bringing together Humanities researchers in a co-ordinated manner to give back to women (and others) in informal and vulnerable geographic spaces?
I was impressed and influenced by Rise - Episode 4 (SABC Education Shows): Informal Settlements, on SABC-TV where the following was expressed: ‘Living in an informal settlement is like being a soldier in a war. It is everyone’s problem and we can’t’ continue to ignore the settlements. They are a reflection of a failure of our society.’
International institutions recognise that ‘reaching out to friends and family is critical as well as paying attention to the impact our physical health can have on our mental health - from diet and exercise to getting enough natural light and a little fresh air.’ (BBC news 2 April, 2020).
As humanities researchers and academics are we ready for this journey now and post coronavirus?
Are we able to transcend our interventions from talk shops to intervention ‘shops’?
My observation of the debates and discourse in South Africa about the COVID-19 pandemic is that there is little or no interest in borrowing best practices from countries which previously experienced and largely survived natural disasters.
Documented evidence demonstrates how these countries managed psychosocial impacts on vulnerable communities and women in slums and informal settlements.
I have also not seen any public reference to scientifically documented lessons from the psychosocial impact of the Spanish flu (1918), the Asian flu (1957), the Hong Kong flu (1968), the Russian flu (1997), and Swine flu (2009) which could be used to inform psychosocial interventions for vulnerable and unequal communities in South Africa.
The Economist magazine reminds us: ‘Suppression strategies (e.g. social distancing) may work for a while. But there needs to be an exit strategy.’
‘Give a voice to those less heard,’ are words from a report in the Guardian newspaper in England of 11 March, 2020, which should further remind us of the role we need to play during this calamity . Those less heard could very well be the Humanities nationally and internationally.
Humanities has the scientific power to achieve the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). However, these goals will be bereft of meaning unless we fulfil SDG 5: ‘Achieve gender equality and empowering all women and girls.’
The intention of this article is to stimulate debate on how academics and researchers in the Humanities can meaningfully contribute to ameliorating some of COVID-19’s psychosocial impact on women living in informal and other unequal geographic spaces by translating findings in their research into solutions.
UKZN’s Professor Nirmala Gopal is an academic activist on Human Rights and anti any form of oppression and discriminatory behaviour.