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UNESCO addresses societal inequalities and economic impacts of COVID-19 in nine Sub-Saharan African cities

03 - Good Health & Well Being
11 - Sustainable Cities and Communities
16 - Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions

While the world has focused on the public health consequences of the COVID-19, the socioeconomic impacts have been a key policy lever in establishing government responses. In Sub-Saharan Africa, the pandemic triggered severe economic and social contractions, magnifying the long-standing legacies of prejudice, injustice, and increasing inequalities of our societies. Local populations have suffered devastating consequences for food security, employment opportunities, and public trust, provoked by the global health crisis.

UNESCO, in partnership with Metropolis Canada and the Canadian COVID-19 Social Impacts Network, produced a report on the Impact of COVID-19 in Sub-Saharan Africa to put forward key policy recommendations to counter the consequences of the pandemic that has left the most vulnerable further behind. Based on over 3,000 collected responses, the report's results explore the most salient societal issues, such as public trust in institutions, access to services, and social status, the most widely reported form of discrimination. The report was launched during a webinar announcing the findings of the study on 11 December 2020.

Among its key findings, the report revealed the economic transformations brought about by the pandemic, with a staggering 81% of respondents suffering negative financial impacts, almost half experiencing difficulties accessing employment services, and just under 40% having trouble getting financial assistance. Health was another focus of the report, with one in five respondents reporting bad or very bad mental health and young Sub-Saharan Africans, in particular, disclosing difficulty in accessing health care. 

To counter high fear levels – 46% of respondents indicated being fearful of contracting the virus – the report recommended establishing additional safety measures. One in four respondents indicated a lack of access to testing and testing facilities despite a willingness to do so. Responders also experienced discrimination based on social status, political affiliation, and gender, with 18 to 24-year-olds having the highest rates. Improvement of trust in various government and law enforcement institutions was another key recommendation in light of a disturbing erosion of confidence in these bodies.

The survey was conducted in nine cities across Sub-Saharan Africa (Maputo, Mozambique; Johannesburg, South Africa; Harare, Zimbabwe; Nairobi, Kenya; Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire ; Dakar, Senegal; Libreville, Gabon; Freetown, Sierra Leone; and Kampala, Uganda – members of UNESCO's International Coalition of Inclusive and Sustainable Cities – ICCAR), and collected a total of 3001 responses from 18 to 65+ year-olds in English, French and Portuguese, via a web-based survey with both quantitative and qualitative questions, between 11 August and 4 September  2020.

Chaired by the Right Honourable Michaëlle Jean, Former Governor General of Canada & Former Secretary-General of the Organisation internationale de la Francophonie, and coordinated by an Expert Advisory Committee including Gabriela Ramos, UNESCO Assistant Director-General for Social and Human Sciences; Ann Therese Ndong-Jatta, Director of the UNESCO Multi-Sectoral Office in Nairobi for East Africa; Firmin Edouard Matoko, UNESCO Assistant Director-General for Priority Africa and External Relations; as well as researchers and elected officials, the study uncovered several key themes requiring the attention of policymakers. 

Moderated by Simona Bignami, Professor of Demography at the Université de Montréal, the webinar welcomed more than 100 participants from around the world.

The Right Honourable Michaëlle Jean emphasized the study's significant goal to provide governments of the cities involved with necessary data to address the need for effective and inclusive policy responses that are evidence-based.  She also addressed the imperative need to consider the socioeconomic dimension of the crisis while highlighting how it has exacerbated inequalities within countries – leaving the most vulnerable groups behind.  She later expressed how this is only the beginning of the work that needs to be done as the pandemic is an opportunity to examine what is needed, especially in terms of policies and access; it is also an indicator of the gaps and inequalities and blindspots of society.   

Gabriela Ramos highlighted the need for more granular information and a solid evidence base to understand the impact of the COVID crisis, which has stagnated economies and hit the lower-income groups – emphasizing how the mapping out of its differentiated impacts is exceptionally significant.  Recognizing that this partnership has produced innovative knowledge to better understand the perceptions of people in Sub-Saharan Africa on how COVID is affecting their health, their life and their economic activities, Ms Ramos expressed that this international survey will inform better policies, not only related to the containment of the virus spread or to keep the economy but in anticipating the reaction of certain groups regarding the newly developed vaccines. Based on this research, she made a strong call for countries to prioritize policies that will deliver better for the most vulnerable and for those segments that were highly hit. The partnership that UNESCO’s Social and Human Sciences forged with the Canadian institute has delivered greatly, as the study dealt with one of the regions with a higher level of vulnerabilities, and a lack of granular data. 

Jack Jedwab, Chair of the COVID-19 Social Impacts Network, presented the research findings while highlighting the correlation between high levels of fear of contracting COVID-19 and mental health issues.  Mr Jedwab underlined the issue of anxiety which has aggravated mental health issues, having a significant collateral effect with serious societal consequences. Individuals with higher levels of fear of contracting the contagion, on the other hand, showed higher levels of trust toward public health officials. Mr Jedwab emphasized that information was critical along with trust to address the effects of the contagion, particularly when it comes to health and social impact.  He concluded by presenting respondents' visions of the future, noting themes such as digital connectivity and heightened awareness of the importance of health issues.  

Ann Therese Ndong-Jatta emphasized how the COVID crisis has amplified the underlying inequalities in society, particularly among the rural population.  A special focus was on fear and knowledge, drawing attention to the uncertainties around the virus, access to services, non-discrimination, and gender equality-related challenges.  Ms Ngong-Jatta emphasized that society cannot build trust through violence and that trust is limited, reflecting the failure of institutions to guarantee the rights of different societal groups.  Young people were specifically mentioned among the most vulnerable, having lost faith, hope, and trust in the system.  She concluded by discussing how this should inform how we target the interventions, engage policymakers, and work with civil society to take this response to another level.

Firmin Edouard Matoko emphasized the need to rethink our way of life and development strategies, especially for the youth who are our future leaders.  He highlighted two key elements from the survey regarding what we have learned about the disease and the significance of the fight against discriminations, noting how women and groups of disabled persons have suffered a lot because of it.  Further, he emphasized that UNESCO should conduct surveys regarding the perception of these vulnerable people and their conditions, and how more surveys and discussions are needed to actually understand the African context.  He concluded by stating that we are on a long road to understand and help populations live with and survive the disease.

Aimed as a policy reference guide, this study will be presented to all UNESCO networks, including partners in policy planning and academic communities, to explore collaboration on the optimal use of its findings and on the replication of the research in other regions across the globe.

This initiative is part of UNESCO's efforts to upscale its anti-racism and anti-discrimination programme. Together with the Member States, UNESCO is currently developing a roadmap that includes a scanning project to strengthen institutional and legal frameworks against racism and discriminations, affirmative actions in public and private sectors and anti-biases training that fight stereotypes and promote positive role models.

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