Southern Africa: Open Society Picks Up the Slack in Southern Africa During COVID-19 Crisis

As coronavirus lockdowns across Africa start to ease, the Open Society Foundation has moved to help southern African countries fill funding gaps in public health, while reaching out to grassroots groups that help informal workers.

The US-based organisation is giving more than 3.2 million euros through the Open Society Foundation for South Africa and the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa.

"Given that the Covid-19 pandemic has gone beyond the realm of health, we are working with organisations that provide support in a number of technical areas, including health, education, transparency and accountability, gender justice, and feminism and human rights organisations in general," says Cynthia Ngwalo-Lungu, Johannesburg, South Africa-based health program manager at OSF.

The funds are going to 11 countries in Southern Africa, including Angola, Botswana, Democratic Republic of Congo, Lesotho, Madagascar, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, eSwatini, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.

"In Malawi, for example, we have partnered with the Malawi Health Equity Network, for health aspects of the pandemic. In Madagascar, we partnered with an organisation called Autisme Madagascar, and at a regional level across South Africa, we have partnered with the Southern African Trust to look at issues of economic justice. It varies from country to country," she said.

Civil liberties crackdown

Ngwalo-Lungu says the organisation is concerned with government crackdowns on civil liberties, especially the militarisation of the Covid-19 response in places like Zimbabwe and South Africa, where citizens were beaten and intimidated.

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"In the current context, as governments use the military to enforce lockdown measures, OSF has included [funding] documentation of human rights violations for future litigation, and for holding perpetrators accountable," she says.

On the other hand, the organisation has helped governments procure testing kits and oxygen tanks and other issues needed.

"in spite of the fact that we are against some of the things that governments are doing with the crackdown, we still see that there is a need for us to support...especially from a public health perspective to ensure that we save lives within this pandemic."

Aid in other Covid-19 issues

Treating issues related to Covid-19, including lockdowns, are also funded by OSF.

"We've seen a spike of gender-based violence across the region and in Swaziland, obviously because of the lockdowns lots of women are spending time indoors with their abusers," says Ngwalo-Lungu.

One portion of the money goes to Women and Law in Southern Africa, an eSwatini-based group that helps women in dangerous situations.

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Domestic workers and cross-border traders, such as women who buy goods in South Africa for sale in Zimbabwe have been stymied by the lockdown, unable to provide for their families.

"We're also looking at street vendors and market women in general, and just looking at the economic impact. So we're responding from a policy perspective, where we're looking at the economic policies that are in place to ensure that the business sectors are stimulated and can start to rework post-Covid," Ngwalo-Lungu explains.

Leaving comfort zone

The urgency of the pandemic forced OSF to work outside their usual comfort zone, says Ngwalo-Lungu. While normally sticking to structural issues and advocacy and influencing policy development and implementation, the organisation decided to actually procure desperately needed items directly, such as personal protective equipment (PPE) for health workers.

"It is incumbent on us to partner with organisations and give grants in ways that enable wage workers to have the wherewithal, the resources to continue to press for these policy solutions," OSF president Patrick Gaspard tells RFI.

Will OSF return to its strict advocacy policy after the coronavirus pandemic is over?

"Maybe yes and no. I think we are really looking at a new world order," says Ngwalo-Lungu, adding that internal five-year strategy plans were due in February, but the deadlines have been extended in light of the pandemic.

"We're looking... at what is most relevant in the current context and beyond the current context, looking at the world that we are facing," she says.

"Based on the profound global economic downturn that we've already seen, it seems clear in Africa we will be operating in a Covid economy for several years to come," says OSF President Gaspard.

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