The Coronavirus (COVID-19) snakes its way around the world, closing borders, canceling events, shutting down offices, suspending classes, and barricading cities.
Reading about Coronavirus outbreak and watching the news made me worried that the crisis could put women at a disproportionate risk, exacerbating gender, social and economic fault lines.
Public health responders are facing a barrage of questions about the Coronavirus. Most are of a scientific and technical nature, crucial to containing the outbreak, such as how infectious is it? How long does it incubate in the body before you get sick? And can it be spread by people who have no symptoms? And many other questions related to prevention and response.
There are unanswered questions that also need to be addressed but are rarely asked. These questions should be considered in our analysis in order to take a gendered approach to fight the Coronavirus, improve outcomes for people affected by it, and save lives.
A gendered approach means including gender analysis and using a gender lens in both preparedness and response. The gender analysis gives us an overview of the outcomes of the outbreak at medical, social, and economic levels and also asks how socially-constructed roles and identities affect vulnerability to and experiences of the outbreak.
The coronavirus response has the chance to integrate gender analysis immediately by asking questions such as:
- Who is making the decisions about the outbreak response? It is probably mostly men, and these men likely represent the dominant social group within their countries and societies. The Global Health 50/50 Report from 2019 finds that 72 percent of executive heads in global health are men. Equity issues are only meaningfully integrated into emergency responses when women and marginalized groups are able to participate in decision-making.
- Are those caring for the ill-being fairly compensated and supported? Globally, women are usually the main caretakers of children but also of the ills within the family. As responders, they might feel ‘sandwiched’ between personal and professional responsibilities.
- Do men and women feel the effects of the Coronavirus differently?
- How can stigma be countered? How will different groups of people, particularly marginalized communities, be affected by the stigma associated with the outbreak? It’s clear that stigma can spread more rapidly than the virus itself.
- Are there specific groups, such as vulnerable minorities, that might avoid surveillance, testing, and care because of distrust of government and/or healthcare services? How can they be reached and protected?
- Is data being disaggregated by sex? Is there a difference in terms of infection and mortality rates? If so, what are the biological and social factors causing this?
- Who is caring for the ill both in formal healthcare settings and at home? Who provides the majority of home-based care, and who makes up the majority of the global health workforce?
These are types of catalyzing questions that need to be asked to embed a gendered approach in the strategy we are using to tackle the Coronavirus, to improve outcomes for people affected by the virus, and to save more lives. Experience from past outbreaks shows the importance of incorporating gender analysis into preparedness and response efforts to improve the effectiveness of health interventions and promote gender and health equity goals.
Why may the coronavirus crisis hit women harder than men?
The roles that women have in society could place them squarely in the virus’s path. Around the world, women make up a majority of health care workers, almost 70 percent according to some estimates, and most of them occupy nursing roles — on the front lines of efforts to combat and contain outbreaks of disease. Nurses’ level of exposure to the risk of infection is higher than doctors’ because they are much more in contact with patients. They are the ones drawing blood and collecting specimens.
Women around the world are also more likely to take on the burden of care at home, particularly if someone in their family is sick and bear most of the responsibility of childcare. When schools are closed and sick people stay at home women are exposed to even higher risks of exposure to the Coronavirus. Pregnant women are faced with a whole different set of challenges — especially the stress of not knowing exactly how Coronavirus might affect their child.
Looking at the effects on the economy, outbreaks could have a disproportionately negative impact on women, who make up a large chunk of part-time and informal workers around the world. These are the kind of jobs that are usually the first to get sliced in periods of economic uncertainty. During crisis, such an outbreak, women are the ones expected to sacrifice their jobs and careers to stay home and care for the rest of the family, but when the crisis ends, it’s very hard for women to get back what they have been obliged to give up.
The COVID-19 epidemic poses a once-in-lifetime challenge that is already causing widespread panic and economic paralysis. While the epidemic appears to be spiraling out of control now, it is clear that gender considerations should not be neglected if we want to address crises fairly and effectively, and the Coronavirus outbreak is no exception. Governments must remember that, for their response to be truly effective and not reproduce or perpetuate gender inequities, it is important that gender norms, roles, and all other factors that influence women’s and men’s vulnerability to infections and access to treatment in a different way, are studied, analyzed and properly addressed in the implementation of national plans executed across the globe to fight this epidemic.