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The shadow pandemics

From plummeting mental health to escalating gender-based violence – the most vulnerable in society are living through multiple invisible crises all at once.

The coronavirus pandemic has devastated so many lives. But it isn't just one pandemic – from plummeting mental health to escalating gender-based violence – the most vulnerable in society are living through multiple invisible crises all at once.

You’ll hear it all the time: the pandemic “affects us all”.

Some have even called it “the great leveller”, but it’s not true. The pandemic may have spread across the globe at a breath-taking rate and unprecedented scale, but its impact has certainly not been shared evenly among humanity.

How you experience the pandemic depends entirely on your “pre-existing conditions” – that includes health conditions, but also social, economic and environmental conditions. Everything from your gender to your job to your living conditions affects your risk from the virus itself, as well as your ability to weather the impact of struggling health services, soaring inequalities and a crumbling economy.

It’s what some scientists call a “syndemic”. It means that if we want to fully understand the impact, we have to look beyond just the virus, and more closely at the cracks it reveals in our society.

The COVID-19 syndemic is built on a bedrock of poverty and inequality and, as is so often the case, it's those with the least who stand to lose the most. For the communities VSO works with, the coronavirus pandemic has been accompanied by many “shadow pandemics” – such as an alarming increase in gender-based violence and a collapsing informal economy.

The pandemic intersects every part of our lives and our communities, and disproportionately impacts the people VSO works with – which means our responses must do the same.

17-year-old Gladys dropped out of school at 16. Her family were living in poverty and she was forced to do manual labour. She was abandoned by the child’s father and is now trying to build a better life for the two of them.

Girls disappearing from the world's classrooms

With 1.5 billion children out of school, additional childcare and domestic responsibilities disproportionately fall to women, and many of the girls who have been taken out of school will be expected to shoulder these burdens too.

This dramatically increases the risk that they may never return to education even after schools reopen and increases their exposure to gender-based violence, female genital mutilation and early marriage, pregnancy and childbirth.

Though it’s still too early to grasp the true scale of the impact, the UN predicted last year that the pandemic could result in 13 million additional child marriages between 2020 and 2030, with its significant impact on girls’ education and sexual and reproductive health5.

VSO volunteers are working in their communities to help ensure girls keep up with their education and get back to school – like the Sisters for Sisters project in Nepal where women mentor girls and their families in their community, supporting them and encouraging them to attend school. And for girls who weren’t able to go back, projects like Education For Life offer a second chance at specialised catch-up centres, where they can get the education and life skills they need to build a better future.

Community volunteers use different methods such as public talks, poster campaigns and theatre performances to help communities prevent and respond to sexual and gender-based violence, reduce the stigma and encourage survivors to report abuse.

Gender based violence soaring in lockdowns

Community volunteers use different methods such as public talks, poster campaigns and theatre performances to help communities prevent and respond to sexual and gender-based violence, reduce the stigma and encourage survivors to report abuse

These increases in gender-based violence are occurring while – or perhaps because – support systems are being weakened by the pandemic. Health services have been stretched to breaking point, taking resources away from clinical and emergency services that, for example, support women who have experienced violence or sexual assault.

At the same time, some domestic abuse helplines and shelters have actually seen a decrease in calls9, despite the rise in cases. In situations where women are effectively locked in with their abusers 24 hours a day, opportunities to safely reach out for help are few and far between.

And where these official support services are already weak or non-existent, social distancing restrictions also cut off access to informal support networks such as friends, family or community leaders.

As part of our pandemic response, VSO has been training volunteers and frontline workers to provide mentoring, psychosocial support and information to survivors of gender-based violence. Volunteers have been working with communities to raise awareness for gender-based violence and helping survivors to access medical, legal and psychosocial support during the pandemic.

VSO supporters are helping poor and marginalised communities to grow their own food to supplement their diets, build skills and earn a living.

Risking your life for your livelihood

For people whose livelihoods have been devastated by coronavirus restrictions, the two major difficulties they face are keeping themselves protected from the virus and finding ways to earn a living during lockdown. For some, staying at home and not working is simply not an option.

These challenges are especially difficult for women, who are significantly over-represented in the informal economy. With restrictions on activities like open air markets, domestic paid work and even small-scale, home-based trade, earning enough money to buy even basic food and hygiene supplies is especially challenging for female-headed households.

The combination of economic hardship, restrictions on movements, increasing unemployment and worsening health mean that many are struggling to access one of life’s most basic needs – food.

In VSO’s own research, communities cited food shortages and the related stress as major challenges due to the pandemic. For example, 58% of participants in Malawi indicated that they had no food due to a lack of income. Some even reported having to eat unhygienic (e.g. spoiled or discarded) food to get by, and where people still had access to basic food from local markets, prices had increased.

As well as distributing vital food and hygiene supplies to help people feed their families and protect themselves at work, VSO volunteers have also been training people to produce their own, which they can sell to earn a living and help their community stay safe.

VSO volunteers around the world have produced vital resouces on how to stay safe and stop the spread of COVID -19 in Sign Language.

Isolated and excluded

Disabled people already face huge barriers to accessing healthcare – especially women and girls in countries with already poor health services. Not only do many disabled people require additional and specialist services, the costs, limited availability and physical barriers to accessing these mean some of the most vulnerable are not receiving the care they need, and many are isolated and excluded from society. The pressures on health services during the pandemic have only served to increase this disparity. With so many health services redirected to tackle the virus, the already limited support for people with disabilities has disappeared. Imagine facing a deadly pandemic with no way to find out how to protect yourself. VSO volunteers have been translating vital health information into accessible formats such as braille and sign language to help reach the most marginalised in society.

Throughout the pandemic, VSO volunteers have been sharing vital information about the virus in ways that will reach even the most isolated and marginalised communities – such as by translating official government guidance into sign language, braille and local dialects, using radio broadcasts, leaflets and even community performances to distribute health messages. This work has included reaching out to people with disabilities to ensure they’re aware of their health needs and rights.

Building back better

The last two years shows us just how different the world can look, but we want the lasting difference to be a fair world for everyone. Whatever comes next, the tireless dedication of VSO volunteers, and the supporters who make it possible, can help ensure that no one is left behind by this crisis – or the next.

Pupils practise Kenyan Sign Language VSO/Paul Wambugu

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