Women’s voices key to COVID-19 recovery plans

Women’s voices key to COVID-19 recovery plans

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Staff nurses welcome nurses arriving from around the US to help treat COVID-19 patients at the Long Island Nursing Institute, New York. (Getty Images)

While the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic is causing suffering around the world, some groups of people are more vulnerable to its impact. Although men clearly have a higher mortality rate from COVID-19 than women, women and girls are still bearing the brunt of the impact in many ways. As an April UN report noted, “even the limited gains made” in increased rights and opportunities for women “in the past decades are at risk of being rolled back.” 

The pandemic is posing particular challenges for women and girls in terms of health and safety, the increased care burden, and the economic impact. 

Women are often more likely than men to be front-line workers in the pandemic, increasing their potential exposure. Women make up 70 percent of health care workers globally, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Unfortunately, they are often not well protected in these critical jobs. The UN has noted that personal protective equipment is often designed for men and may not adequately fit women. In Spain and Italy, at least earlier in the pandemic, a majority of health care workers who contracted COVID-19 were women.

Another negative effect for women is that, when health care systems become overwhelmed by COVID-19 cases or shift resources to focus on the pandemic, it often leads to a decrease in resources for other health needs, particularly reproductive and maternal health. For example, a study published in May in The Lancet journal estimated that pandemic-related disruptions to health care and food supplies in low and middle-income countries would lead to “an 8.3 to 38.6 percent increase in maternal deaths per month, across 118 countries” — and even higher increases in child deaths.

Domestic violence has also increased significantly during the pandemic. Times of crisis that drive anxiety frequently lead to abusers taking out their frustrations on the women and children around them, and stay-at-home orders sometimes forced women and children to stay with abusive men. The UN has said that gender-based violence is increasing “exponentially” during the pandemic. France has seen a 30 percent increase in domestic violence incidents since March, while Argentina has seen a 25 percent increase, and many other countries around the world are experiencing increasing numbers of cases. 

The pandemic and related school and business closures have also vastly increased women’s care burden. The UN estimates that women did three times the amount of unpaid care and domestic work as men before the pandemic. With schools and other child care facilities closed, many women found themselves with an impossible workload that combined their usual jobs and household work with caring for and even educating children constantly at home. Women also provide much of society’s elder care — a task that became even more critical and more difficult as COVID-19 sickened many older people and many of their caregivers. Women also provide the majority of the world’s unpaid health care, caring for the sick of many ages, and the pandemic has increased this workload, both by making more people sick — sometimes with long-term health effects after recovery — and by pushing other unwell people out of the formal health care system and into the care of women in their families and communities. 

Women have disproportionately suffered from the economic impacts of the pandemic. In many less developed countries, women often work in the informal sector, which was hit particularly hard by quarantine measures and lacks job protections and benefits such as sick leave. Even in the formal sector, women earn less than their male counterparts. The World Economic Forum notes that women earn just 79 cents for every dollar men earn. In many countries, women are over-represented in the services sectors that were often the first to experience pandemic-related layoffs. Overall, women are less likely than men to have savings and more likely to live close to the poverty line, and therefore women are less able to cope with economic shocks. Furthermore, ongoing school and child care closures will force many women out of jobs as the pandemic continues. 

Governments and communities that are forming plans for recovery from the pandemic and the resulting economic crisis must consider the impact on women if they want to succeed. Women play crucial paid and unpaid roles in economies and broader social roles, and their voices must be included in recovery plans. Unfortunately, women are under-represented in many countries’ recovery planning. For example, women make up just 7 percent of the White House Coronavirus Task Force in the US and 32 percent of the WHO’s Emergency Committee on COVID-19. 

Women play crucial paid and unpaid roles in economies and broader social roles.

Kerry Boyd Anderson

Recovery plans that take into account the impact on women are more likely to succeed and lead to more sustainable future economic and employment growth. In tangible ways, societies should recognize the economic value of the care work that women provide. Governments and communities should work to address inequalities in pay and access to the formal economy. Women’s health should be seen as essential to the entire society’s well-being, and societies should act to address domestic violence.

Women play a crucial role in determining how societies and economies will come out of this historic challenge. Economic recoveries will depend on women returning to work. Societies’ futures will depend on mothers and female family members who care for children and try to fill in gaps in education during school closures. The extent to which the pandemic sets back progress or facilitates a strong recovery will depend, in many ways, on addressing the impact on women and their families. 

  • Kerry Boyd Anderson is a writer and political risk consultant with more than 16 years’ experience as a professional analyst of international security issues and Middle East political and business risk. Her previous positions include deputy director for advisory with Oxford Analytica and managing editor of Arms Control Today. Twitter: @KBAresearch
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