Gender profile of COVID-19: Problems and challenges

By: Dr. Rajkumar Singh

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is not gender neutral, as it affects men and women differently. Therefore, we must not be gender blind in our responses to the pandemic,  failing which women will carry a disproportionately higher  cost than men. Globally, women are more vulnerable to economic shocks wrought by crises such as the coronaviruses. Firstly, women are more likely to lose their jobs than men. In many countries, women’s participation in the labour market is often in the form of temporary employment. Across the world, women represent less than 40% of total employment but make up 57% of those working on a part-time basis, according to the International Labor Organization. Recognising the extent to which disease outbreaks affect women and men differently is a fundamental step to understanding the primary and secondary effects of a health emergency on different individuals and communities, and for creating effective, equitable policies and interventions. Although sex-disaggregated data for COVID-19 show equal numbers of cases between men and women so far, there seem to be sex differences in mortality and vulnerability to the disease. Emerging evidence suggests that more men than women are dying, potentially due to sex-based immunological  or gendered differences, such as patterns and prevalence of smoking.

Global status of women and experience

The closure of schools to control COVID-19 transmission in China, Hong Kong, Italy, South Korea, and beyond might have a differential effect on women, who provide most of the informal care within families, with the consequence of limiting their work and economic opportunities. Travel restrictions cause financial challenges and uncertainty for mostly female foreign domestic workers, many of whom travel in southeast Asia between the Philippines, Indonesia, Hong Kong, and Singapore. Consideration is further needed of the gendered implications of quarantine, such as whether women and men’s different physical, cultural, security, and sanitary needs are recognised. Earlier during the 2014–16 west African outbreak of Ebola virus disease, gendered norms meant that women were more likely to be infected by the virus, given their predominant roles as caregivers within families and as front-line health-care workers.  Women were less likely than men to have power in decision making around the outbreak, and their needs were largely unmet.  For example, resources for reproductive and sexual health were diverted to the emergency response, contributing to a rise in maternal mortality in a region with one of the highest rates in the world. Likewise in the Zika virus outbreak, differences in power between men and women meant that women did not have autonomy over their sexual and reproductive lives, which was compounded by their inadequate access to health care and insufficient financial resources to travel to hospitals for check-ups for their children, despite women doing most of the community vector control activities.

Gender segregation in employment

Given their front-line interaction with communities, it is concerning that women have not been fully incorporated into global health security surveillance, detection, and prevention mechanisms. Women’s socially prescribed care roles typically place them in a prime position to identify trends at the local level that might signal the start of an outbreak and thus improve global health security. Although women should not be further burdened, particularly considering much of their labour during health crises goes underpaid or unpaid, incorporating women’s voices and knowledge could be empowering and improve outbreak preparedness and response.  As the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic roll through economies, reducing employment opportunities and triggering layoffs, temporary workers, the majority of whom are women, are expected to bear the heaviest brunt of job losses. Many women will not be rescued by social safety nets. as access to safety nets frequently depends upon a formal participation in the labour force. But since women tend to work without clear terms of employment, they often are not entitled to reliable social protection such as health insurance, paid sick and maternity leave, pensions and unemployment benefits. In many developing countries, women are either self-employed or work as contributing family workers, for example in family farms. In South Asia, over 80% of women in non-agricultural jobs are in informal employment; in sub-Saharan Africa this figure is 74%; and in Latin America and the Caribbean, 54%of women in non-agricultural jobs participate in informal employment.

Women status in service sector

The service sector is being hit hard by the restrictions imposed to manage the spread of the coronavirus Given that some 55% of women are employed in the service sector (in comparison with 44% of men), women are more likely to be adversely affected. Moreover, female-dominated service sectors such as food, hospitality and tourism are among those expected to feel the harshest economic effects of the measures to contain the spread of the pandemic. Women entrepreneurs are often discriminated against when attempting to access credit. This will be a challenge as credit will be of paramount importance in the survival of firms. Without open and favourable lines of credit, many female entrepreneurs will be forced to close their businesses. By this, women’s unpaid work is set to increase. Women remain responsible for the lion’s share of domestic chores and care work. Measures to contain the pandemic such as quarantines and closures of schools imply additional household work and responsibility. Some women may be forced to make difficult decisions to leave the labour market or opt for part-time jobs, as juggling between caring for family members and paid work becomes untenable.

As a solution to all the above, we must retain women’s productive participation in the labour force. Something we did not do in the aftermath of the 2008 global financial crisis. Here support measures were provided to large infrastructure projects that mainly employed men, while jobs were cut in teaching, nursing and in public services, all female-intensive sectors. This is particularly necessary in female-dominated spheres such as the hospitality, food and tourism sectors, now at a standstill due to confinement measures by governments. Government bailouts and support measures should not only prop up large and medium-sized enterprises, but also micro- and small businesses, where women entrepreneurs are relatively more represented. More transparency and a simplification of public procurement processes would also help women’s businesses to benefit from increased government support.

The coronavirus pandemic presents us with an opportunity to effect systemic changes that could protect women from bearing the heaviest brunt of shocks like these in the future.  Improved education and training opportunities for women would facilitate the shift from precarious jobs to more stable and better-protected employment. Broader provision of social services would lift women’s care burden and give them more time for paid jobs and leisure. Our ability to bounce back from this crisis is dependent on how we include everyone equally. If more women take part in shaping a new social and economic order, chances are that it will be more responsive to everyone’s needs and make us all more prepared for future.

The author is Professor and Head, University Department of Political Science, B.N.Mandal University, Madhepura

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