Women Are at the Frontlines of the Battle Against COVID-19
— Kanta Singh, Country Programme Manager, UN Women
In the weeks since the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak a global public health emergency, the COVID-19 pandemic has affected 212 countries and cost over 100,000 lives. The pandemic hasn’t just forced individuals and institutions to haphazardly shore up resources to combat the virus and its effects across the globe. It has laid bare the lack of preparedness on the part of governments, crisis-management agencies, and private companies in effectively managing the threat of zoonotic viruses – a threat predicted by numerous scientists and health policy advocates including Bill Gates.
Beyond the disquieting cost to human lives reflected in chilling daily statistics and the economic fallout, the costs to marginalized and vulnerable groups continue to add up behind the scenes. The complications of post-truth dimensions, political manoeuvring, and racial biases within countries and across borders seem to only add more damage and create newer chimeric injustices.
Amidst the countless tragedies unfolding before us, few opinions are as unanimous as the one that the world needs to be better prepared for such events, starting immediately, and that such plans must be conceived and executed with inclusivity and humanity.
The limited gains in gender equality and women’s rights made over the decades are in danger of being undone due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In a recent message to world leaders, UN Secretary General António Guterres urged governments to ‘put women and girls at the centre of their efforts to recover from COVID- 19 and that starts with women as leaders, with equal representation and decision-making power’.
In a cruel reminder of prevailing inequalities, women remain particularly vulnerable to the impact of the pandemic, whether it be in the disruption of livelihoods, precarious support systems, new uncertainties, and a heavier burden of unpaid labor.
While it will take some time to study and document the scope and gendered nature of the new disease, the early trends indicate that it is already deepening pre-existing inequalities which are amplifying the pandemic’s impact on the overall security of women and girls. This mirrors previous findings from studies into the gendered impact of previous breakouts in recent history – Ebola, SARS, and H1N1.
An unclear understanding of the differential impact diseases like COVID-19 have on women and a lack of gender-responsive pandemic control policies have put women at the risk of being neglected yet again. At this time of crisis, women now find themselves removed from critical multi-level discussions to find solutions to the socio-economic problems they face, compounding the humanitarian crisis unfolding before us all. Understanding how the pandemic has directly and indirectly exacerbated gender inequities is crucial to dynamizing the current COVID-19 response and the response to future epidemics.
On the front lines at work and home, women are getting the short end of the stick again. Women comprise a disproportionate share (approximately 70%) of the global healthcare workforce. These healthcare professionals are under immense pressure to contain the pandemic at great risk to their own lives. Every country where the pandemic is wreaking havoc has reported a shocking number of deaths of doctors and nurses as they perform their duties, often without adequate protective gear or enough time off to allow necessary rest and care for their own mental health. In addition to the risks of the work itself, healthcare workers who have brought attention to PPE shortages have faced repercussions from their employers for speaking out.
Among these over-extended professionals, female healthcare workers globally find their distress compounded further as they are also primary caregivers at home for spouses, children, and the elderly and infirm, while also taking on household work. It is no secret that the unfair expectation on women to be solely responsible for unpaid work adds hidden opportunity costs, negatively affecting not only their quality of life and career advancement,
but on the advancement of their communities.
In these households, male allies remain a valuable untapped resource. The use of social media to educate and encourage other family members to share household work can fill the gap in raising public awareness and empathy.
Lockdowns and shelter-at-home orders are exposing women to higher incidence rates of domestic violence, made worse by substance abuse and/or withdrawal.
The sharp rise in cases of domestic violence globally puts women and girls at the receiving end of physical and emotional abuse, regardless of class status, with an inadequate network of support. Contributing factors like unemployment, job insecurity, and the mental toll of being locked in for an indefinite period of time is resulting in increased alcohol and drug consumption, or subsequently, withdrawal. In the past 40 days, several countries have
recorded an unprecedented increase in calls from women seeking help from abusive partners.
Like fighting the pandemic, dealing with gender-based violence is a multi-layered and complex task – one that requires a bottom-up approach in terms of allocating resources and information in order to better enable and protect women. Understanding these issues on a macroscopic level but approaching it in a case-by-case method can empower affected women by enacting schemes and policies that mobilize outreach resources at individual community and locality levels.
In India, the National Commission for Women received over 123 complaints of domestic violence and 370 calls between March 4th to 23rd
. To accommodate the spike in cases, the NCW has launched a dedicated hotline for women experiencing violence at home during this period. This is a positive development, but this must be backed up by a network of resources
and support. Assistance rendered under such programs must be deemed an ‘essential service’ even under lockdowns, and if required, courts should expedite the issuance of protection orders against abusers. Dedicated free helplines manned 24×7, easily accessible counseling, free legal aid, and more short-stay homes for women are necessary and require adequate funding.
The pandemic has already derailed careers and dried up opportunities, and it will likely make it harder for women to rejoin the workforce after it subsides.
Women face unequal work opportunities the world over, and are at a disadvantage when taking sabbaticals for childbirth or child-rearing. A slowing economy and male-dominated workforce present additional obstacles for women.
In India, the labour force participation of women has been trending downward for the past ten years. While there are several reasons for the decrease in the formal sector, a crisis like COVID-19 is sure to carry serious implications. The Unemployment Tracker managed by the Centre for Monitoring the Indian Economy last week indicated that India has already seen a 20% decline in vacancies. Economists have already sounded the alarm bells for an oncoming global depression; in such a situation, women are at a higher risk of losing their jobs and facing
issues re-entering the labor force.
The post-COVID job market is poised to deepen workplace inequalities and consign women to the traditional homemaker role. Women who may be able to secure jobs may not receive adequate job security or wages commensurate with their qualifications. During similar periods in history such as The Great Depression (1929-39), women were only able to enter the workforce at the tail end on account of vacancies created by a shift of male labor to military operations during World War II. It is lamentable that only such a cataclysmic event would have to be necessary to level the playing field and create a temporary economic advantage for women.
In the wake of COVID, new forms of administrative support and legal safeguards are essential to protecting their rights and interests and secure the entry of millions of women into the formal economy and recognize the enduring value of their contributions. In order to achieve this, governments and private organizations must consciously design gender-responsive employment policies to bring more women into the formal economy. A renewed focus on
upgrading existing skills and providing new types of training relevant to the new industrial revolution that would render many manual jobs obsolete in a matter of years would shield women from near-term redundancy.
The foreseeable disastrous impact on women in the informal economy has implications that can easily reverse the progress made in empowerment of small women-owned rural businesses, food security, maternal health, infant mortality, and future generations.
The effect on rural and urban poor women in the Global South can be deemed catastrophic. Having borne the immediate brunt of shutdowns with little savings and institutional support, migrant women, daily wage workers and vendors, as well as women serving in sectors like retail and hospitality are particularly dependent on the revival of the national and global economy.
Unpredictable weather events in the spring of 2020 have already resulted in extensive damage to crops. With the potential impact of COVID bringing further uncertainty to the agricultural sector, male migrants returning to villages have handed a raw deal to rural Indian women. The provision of economic packages and relief funds can greatly ease the burden on low-income households, in order to protect women’s livelihoods and to prepare them for the post-COVID economy.
However, there is a silver lining on a bleak, dark cloud. Women leaders are stepping up to the challenge, responding astutely not only to the pandemic but cushioning the resulting fallout for women.
Across the globe, all the six countries that have had the most commendable response to the Covid-19 (Germany, Finland, Denmark, New Zealand, Belgium and Iceland) had one thing in common – female leadership.
New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern’s crisis management has received much praise for its swiftness and effective communication to the public, garnering necessary social consensus and support from local communities.
France’s Gender Equality Minister Marlene Schiappa’s response has stepped up to the challenge by specifically addressing the resulting fallout for women, by providing new avenues, such as a codeword used in pharmacies, to address the spike in domestic violence during lockdown, and securing hotels for domestic abuse victims.
Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin and her all-female cabinet have received widespread approval from Finns for policies to address the pandemic with consideration for the dark side of widespread lockdowns – mental health issues, shortcomings in child support, and substance abuse that disproportionately affect women and girls.
Promoting the involvement of women in decision-making at home, at work, and in top-level leadership can instil more inclusivity in strategic responses and global health policy. Continued efforts to build out an effective long-term strategy that tackles the repercussions of gender roles can further sensitize potential male allies and reduce the gender skew in industries and jobs that exploit women labor, a trend pronounced in the informal and semiformal workforce. Governance models should also allocate resources to strengthen hyperlocal economies, skilling and reskilling of women and value chains for sustainable grassroots development that does not alienate women.
At the same time, we must also prioritize the development of innovative models to monetize the unpaid and unacknowledged labor performed by women during the transition to greater socioeconomic and work parity. Despite the gains made in recent decades, women continue to face less conspicuous barriers to socioeconomic advancement regardless of their status – an example being the double standards that afflict women leaders, or the unnecessary glorification of women performing unpaid care work without commensurate benefits owed
Among the numerous lessons the emergence of COVID-19 has brought to the fore is the reality of how pervasively existing inequalities compound daily injustices faced by vulnerable sections of societies globally, while those very inequalities get reinforced in their entrenchment. The pandemic also highlights the urgent need to commit to addressing structural, systemic, and endemic inequalities across regions with lasting impact, lest a new challenge rear its head to undo marginal gains made in the meantime.