© economictimes.com

No Stone Unturned: Voices of Those Affected by COVID-19

FROM: Zenebe B. Uraguchi – 17. June 2020
© economictimes.com

The stories about the COVID-19 pandemic and its impacts have been heart-wrenching. Of course, not everything is doom and gloom; there are also opportunities and innovations, as well as resilience against the odds. At times, unfortunately, the conversations about the pandemic and its impacts tend to ‘normalize’ the number of deaths and the level of anguish. People are more than statistics, and a count reveals only so much.  

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The COVID-19 pandemic has had different impacts – sickness or death (health); loss of jobs and income (economic); increased suppression (governance); or increased stress and violence (social).

The impacts are felt widely, but unevenly. They also differ in their severity for different people, organizations, and countries. That is why the cliché that the pandemic is a ‘great leveler’ is shallow and misplaced.

Helvetas has been documenting the experiences of different countries. In Southeast and Eastern Europe, for example, we have had several exchanges with women and men and various organizations and actors. These are documented in our ‘inclusive systems blog’.

In this blog, we look back and amplify the voices of those affected – not just the ones who were infected by or passed away due to the virus and have been presented as ‘statistics’, but also those who have been invisible, struggling through the pandemic and are still grappling with the impacts of the pandemic – now and for long to come.

‘Unsettled’ Minds

‘I won’t forget the past,’ says M., 16, who lives in a shelter for girls and women, victims of violence in Balldre, Lezha Albania. Despite her suffering, she is determined: ‘I’ll fight with all my strength to become someone, to show everyone that I made it.’

There has been an alarming increase in domestic violence against women during the pandemic. Existing patterns of abuse—psychological, physical, sexual, financial, or emotional—are increasing in frequency and type because people are constantly at close quarters. In such cases, being home may not be a safe option. Some call this the ‘hidden pandemic’.

Quality data and its usage are important in exposing new challenges and increasing accountability regarding gender inequality. More and better data is about sorting data by age and sex, and most importantly taking women as active participants – not just using them as a source of information.

Also, with the lockdowns, not every parent could afford more space, toys, and learning opportunities to their children who are confined at home. Added to this is the lack of support for other social services. The impact of the pandemic and its anxiety-inducing spread may be far more stressful for children and their parents. ‘I miss the games, the teacher's voice, the kindergarten… I miss everything,’ says Gledi, a pupil at a kindergarten in Albania. 

The pandemic has brought to the surface the ‘care crisis’ that has been building for decades. Childcare has for long been a huge responsibility for women. For those who can work from home, this requires juggling a variety of unpaid roles in addition to their full-time jobs. For those who have lost their jobs, this means not only unpaid additional roles as caregivers, but also the uncertainty of going back to their professional life, widening further gender disparity in labor market participation. 

Young and aspiring, but with uncertain future  

Anxhelo Cenomeri is 18. She had a dream to be a programmer. However, the pandemic has dashed her hopes. Like her, many young people now face broken transitions from education to the world of work and a deep sense of uncertainty with possible long-term unemployment.

Crises fall hardest on the most vulnerable, worsening poverty and unemployment and most likely increasing migration. Young people make up one such group. Health experts aren't exactly sure why, but the COVID-19 pandemic causes only mild symptoms for most young patients, with some reportedly dying. The pandemic hits the old hardest, but young people are suffering, too, both in terms of health and economically.

Most businesses have closed down or substantially scaled down their operations. Even if they resume operations, the prospect of a quick recovery is difficult. Many have lost their jobs. Younger workers are often the first to have their hours cut or be laid off. For recent and this-year graduates and for people who were unemployed before the crisis, the time ahead will be especially difficult. 

Even if training opportunities are moving to online platforms, not every education or training institution is capable of going online. As much as digitalization has spread to many parts of the world, knowledge isn’t yet a mouse-click away to millions of young people. 

Arber Avdija, from the tourism and hospitality in Lezha in Albania, doesn’t hide his concerns about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic: “Most of the trainees come from low-income families that are highly impacted by the situation and they won’t be able to pay for the remaining part of the courses.’

The shift to e-learning and training also cannot ignore or become a substitute for pre-COVID underperformance of education systems: many students were in school but were not learning the fundamental skills needed for life or skills demanded by the labor market. A March 2020 survey of 40,000 young people in 150 countries showed that current education isn’t preparing them with the skills they need to get jobs.

‘No host-company in the hospitality sector would be able to cater to the students’ training needs as they were all shut down,’ says Veselin Savić, Director of the Republika Srpska Chamber of Commerce Branch Office Trebinje, Bosnia & Herzegovina.

For others, the pandemic has been a crisis within a crisis

Zivko Kosteski, from North Macedonia, has an autistic spectrum disorder. He graduated from the city’s hospitality school ‘Lazar Tanev’. For people like him, while they’re used to marginalization and isolation, the crisis seems to offer them the opportunity to participate in their homes, working and living ‘virtually’. However, the pandemic has been essentially a health crisis, which directly affects people with disabilities. It also worsens their economic and social vulnerabilities, making it a ‘triple whammy’!

About 15% of the world's population lives with some form of disability, of whom 2-4% experience significant difficulties in functioning. The employment prospects for many disabled people vary. The challenge starts early on, from access to education and skills development. Barriers include long-term physical, mental, intellectual, and sensory impairments that prevent them from participating on an equal basis with others. Together with the misperception of society, these disadvantages often result in a lack of skills, as well as low confidence, expectations, and achievement.

For smallholder farmers, empty fields and barns or loss of perishable produce and accumulation of non-perishable produce is more devastating. Nadejda Gori is a vegetable grower in Moldova. The closure of the markets in Moldova is a serious problem because it also disrupts a complex web of interactions among producers, inputs providers, transportation agencies, and processing plants. Restrictions and quarantine measures are limiting farmers’ access to inputs and output markets, reducing productive capacities, and denying a point of sale for produce. ‘We had invested a lot in seasonal produce and without current deliveries, we would have enormous losses in our business,’ says Nadejda.

What about people who live in fragile contexts? In Kosovo, the pandemic has put people and their lives in the middle of a constitutional crisis – forcing the government by toppling the government that has been in power for 52 days following elections last in October 2019. In Bosnia & Herzegovina, too, the pandemic has worsened the already complex institutional and political landscape, making the situation for people more disruptive and devastating. This undermines public trust at a time when this is so badly needed.

There is no conclusion

There is no conclusion until the following happens.

A global crisis of such an unimaginable scale needs global action. It’s in everyone’s interest that all nations come together and bolster their commitment to international development cooperation to protect the most vulnerable sections of our societies. Building a better world will require all us to be ‘empathetic, inventive, passionate, and above all, cooperative.’ An effective partnership needs the recognition that global problems require every country’s involvement.

Equally important, the most likely and indeed justified response to the pandemic is saving lives and supporting short-term humanitarian efforts. Many ad hoc measures are required to address the economic and social fallouts from the pandemic. The challenge often, however, is the lack of attention to a crisis in a more systematic way with a medium to long-term perspective.

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Programme Coordinator, East and Southeast Europe, Senior Advisor, Sustainable & Inclusive Economies