We are just beginning to learn and feel the magnitude of the direct and indirect impact that this pandemic is having on the lives of women across the globe. COVID-19 is not just a health issue. It has complex interactions at the social, economic, cultural, political and gender relations level. Data reveals that the virus does not impact women as severely as men. Women do get infected and develop complications. Just less than men.
Women are bigger casualties due to the nature of their work, the impact of the economic downturn, the lockdown and the stay-at-home mandate, adding to the existing deep fissures in gender parity. These will have a negative impact in the short term and will be more pronounced in the long term.
Women make up nearly 70% of the global health care work force. As nurses, doctors, therapists, cleaners and caregivers they are in harm’s way with gruelling schedules, compromised safety, lack of protective equipment and poor representation at leadership levels. The thought of how the pandemic will affect their own lives, and their families is a major source of anxiety and stress. Watching many patients die is a heavy emotional burden for many of these women with the potential for serious post-traumatic stress disorders soon.
The economic downturn will have the harshest impact on women. More women work part time, provide a major share of childcare and elder care. They are under paid, unpaid, unorganised and undervalued. Small businesses such as salons, fruit and flower shops are often women-owned. This also exacerbates the economic insecurities and gender inequalities that already exist. The economic shocks felt by women can drive them to take heavy interest loans, multiple jobs and low paying or risky jobs.
It is well known that during times of crises, violence against girls and women becomes real. We are seeing this yet again. Lockdown, unemployment, financial hardship and access to alcohol are making men/spouses angry and edgy, leading to domestic abuse. The WHO and the UN Women are deeply concerned and flagging this aspect of the pandemic regularly.
Pregnancy should be viewed as a high-risk state. Women missing their antenatal visits/ scans and post-partum visits due to fear of infection and lack of transportation will compound to the existing crises. Maternal morbidity and mortality are likely to go higher now.
Gender based violence, economic insecurities, care giving, front line health care work, loss of physical and emotional support from family and friends due to physical distancing and lockdown, concerns about pregnancy, contraception and abortion, worries about the future of education, physical and mental well-being of their children.
Nearly 700 million girls are out of school now and many adolescent girls who are forced to stay at home run the real risk of being burdened and exploited with domestic chores and caregiving. Many may never return to school. It is important to anticipate these challenges and begin the remedial measures at local and the national levels.
Transwomen‘s lives have been upended even more during this lockdown. Begging and commercial sex work are not options. Discrimination and lack of family support for many have made them more marginalised now. Many trans women on hormones are unable to access and afford the medications and getting good health care has always been a challenge for the LGBTQIA+ community.
How can we make this pandemic a catalyst for building a better tomorrow for our girls and our women? By taking a gendered approach to the entire situation.
a) We need women included in decision making and in leadership roles.
b) Healthcare workers need to have adequate Personal Protective Equipment and mental health support.
c) Data needs to be disaggregated based on gender
d) Special needs of pregnant women to be addressed through a hotline
e) A plan to offer Wellness Clinics post COVID for everyone, particularly women
f) Transwomen and disabled women to be assisted through the local government
g) Prioritising physical and mental health of women now and beyond the pandemic
These are very unusual times. They need more than the usual solutions. We need a bright light, a gender lens and good leadership. What are we waiting for?