COVID-19: A Gendered Reading of a Pandemic

21 Apr, 2020    ·   5679

Akanksha Khullar explores the gendered impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and explains how women are likely to be affected more.

The gender-disaggregated data available so far for COVID-19 demonstrates an almost equal number of confirmed cases between men and women. However, mortality rates are higher among men (2.8 per cent) than women (1.7 per cent). Purely from the perspective of a physical illness, the virus appears to affect women less severely than men. However, emergencies such as this one do not function in a vacuum; i.e. they do not have health implications alone. Their negative socio-economic impacts could exacerbate pre-existing inequalities and create new ones. And, although these impacts are serious for all, they are likely to affect women more.

Labour in the Health Sector
For instance, COVID-19’s disproportionate effects on women draws from the fact that a majority of healthcare workers across the globe are women. With healthcare workers at the forefront of combating the pandemic, they are at a greater risk than most of contracting the illness. To illustrate, Spain now has 40,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases, of which 5400—nearly 14 per cent—are medical professionals. In Italy, 9 per cent of the total cases have occurred among health workers, and about 3,300 doctors and nurses have been affected in China.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), women account for about 70 per cent of workers in the health and social care sector. This means relatively more female medical professionals are being exposed to the virus on a day-to-day basis in comparison to their male counterparts. The worldwide shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) such as masks, gloves, and sanitisers, worsens this scenario.

Division of Labour in Households
The state-imposed lockdowns being adopted across the world too have a gender dimension, which comes into sharper focus in traditional households where women already shoulder a substantial proportion of the domestic workload. Could this workload increase?

Even more developed countries with relatively greater gender parity struggle to put women at an equal footing owing to still predominant gender stereotypes and discriminatory social norms. Resultantly, it is women who have predominantly tended to carry out household work, including caregiving duties. According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), globally, women carry out 76 per cent of the total amount of unpaid caregiving responsibilities, which is over three times more than men.

Subsequently, with restrictions on movement, shutting down of businesses and schools, and with every member of the family being at home—the burden of these unpaid and household responsibilities could likely continue to fall more heavily on women, particularly in traditional households. This is especially problematic for women who also have professional responsibilities and are working from home due to lockdowns.

Gender-Based Violence
Prolonged quarantine measures could be a serious catalyst for escalation in domestic violence, placing victims at potentially far greater risk than before. According to the WHO, one in three women in the world experience physical or sexual violence in their lifetimes. Based on the probability of these lockdowns impacting businesses and increasing financial difficulties, which could be accompanied by spikes in alcohol consumption, anxiety, and depression—all considered triggers for violence against women—a resultant escalation in gender-based domestic violence could be anticipated.

This has already been documented in India: since the countrywide lockdown began, there was a two-fold increase in gender-based violence, with 257 complaints registered in the final week of March 2020 (23 March-1 April) alone. In Spain, calls to the domestic violence hotline have increased by 18 per cent, and a state-run hotline website recorded a 270 per cent increase in the number of sexual violence cases. This trend is visible globally.

Divisions of Labour in the Workplace
Economic repercussions of pandemics are well understood. Research suggests that women are more vulnerable to being laid off in such an environment. In the current situation, informal and part-time jobs are at the greatest risk of suspensions. In both developed and developing economies, many informal sector jobs are mostly undertaken by women. For instance, in South Asia, over 80 per cent of women in non-agricultural jobs are in informal employment; in sub-Saharan Africa, 74 per cent; and in Latin America and the Caribbean, 54 per cent. Even in the formal economy, many industries that are directly affected by the lockdowns—such as travel, tourism, F&B, food production etc—have high female labour participation.

Clearly, women are at a greater disadvantage in an already negative economic environment. This could be further exacerbated in any economic crisis precipitated by the COVID-19 pandemic. A fact sheet published by Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development demonstrates how, among other things, jobs created during and after an economic crisis are mostly built for, and offered to, men.

Overall, it is evident that the multi-dimensional socio-economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic has a sizable gendered dimension. Consequently, gender-responsive policies will be necessary for mitigating the effects of the pandemic in a sustainable and equitable manner.

Akanksha Khullar is a Researcher at the Centre for Internal and Regional Security at IPCS.