Editor’s Note: This series is produced in partnership with the World Health Organization (WHO).
Humanitarian crises can affect the lives of men and women differently – and the coronavirus pandemic is no exception.
Women have shown better COVID-19 outcomes than men – in part thanks to an additional X chromosome and sex hormones like oestrogen, which provoke better immune responses to the virus that causes COVID-19. But any such advantage is reversed when it comes to the social and economic effects of the pandemic; here the brunt falls heaviest on women.
“COVID-19 has had a devastating social and economic impact on women and girls, reversing decades of limited and fragile progress on gender equality,” United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned last week.
Since governments around the world shut borders and slowed economic activities to curb the spread of the coronavirus, the global economy is expected to shrink by more than five percent in 2020 – this would be the worst recession since World War II.
Such economic hardship, though, reflects differently on men compared with women, who represent 39 percent of the global workforce but account for 54 percent of overall job losses.
“What has disproportionately affected women is insecurity and loss of employment because women tend to work in informal sectors with no financial protection or benefits,” explained Avni Amin, a scientist working at the department of sexual and reproductive health and research on violence against women at the World Health Organization (WHO).
As an example, more than 90 percent of the labour force in sub-Saharan Africa is composed of informal workers, most of whom are female, whose jobs are more at risk due to the pandemic, according to a World Bank report.
Women tend to work in informal sectors, so when the economy goes down, they are the first to lose their jobs.
Overall, women’s work is 1.8 times more vulnerable than men’s, according to data gathered by the management consulting firm McKinsey & Company.
“Women tend to work in informal sectors, so when the economy goes down, they are the first to lose their jobs,” Amin said.
The risk is not just on the economic front. Women make up 70 percent (PDF) of the global health workforce and are highly represented on the front lines. As a result, they are more frequently exposed to infected patients.
Data gathered by UN Women shows that of all healthcare workers infected with COVID-19 in Spain and Italy, 72 percent and 66 percent respectively were women.
When women can keep their jobs but have to work from home during the pandemic, new challenges arise; more hours of unpaid care work get added to a daily load already disproportionately carried by women.
Before the pandemic, women performed 76.2 percent of the total hours of unpaid care work, more than three times as much as men, according to the International Labour Organization. This percentage increased to 80 percent when looking at Asia and the Pacific.
While they were forced to stay home during lockdowns, women in France, Germany and the United States spent significantly more time caring for children. In other cases, working mothers spent less time on paid work but more on household work.
“The impact [of the pandemic] on time scarcity for women has been large with implications on stress and mental health,” said Amin, adding that women are bearing a “triple burden” of domestic and family responsibilities, caring for the sick, in addition to work.
"Often in epidemics, it’s women who are the most affected because they are the ones who take care of the sick either at home or in hospitals. Women are very important in the management of epidemics as they can offer a different perspective."
– @SCBriand#COVID19 pic.twitter.com/rN3QQcdzFU
— World Health Organization (WHO) (@WHO) March 13, 2020
The advantages of a more gender-balanced recovery plan go beyond the wellbeing of women alone.
In a gender-regressive scenario in which no action is adopted to cushion the impact of these effects, McKinsey estimated that global gross domestic product growth could be $1 trillion lower in 2030 “than it would be if women’s unemployment simply tracked that of men in each sector”, its report read.
As health system capacities are stretched, governments have to prioritise the provision of some health services, while reducing others.
“Looking at previous outbreaks, such as Ebola, one of the areas where governments tend to cut budgets from is sexual and reproductive health services, including family planning, maternal health services, access to safe abortion – with harmful consequences for women’s health,” said Amin.
The decrease in availability of sexual and reproductive health services can result in an increased risk of maternal mortality, unintended pregnancies and other adverse sexual and reproductive health outcomes among women and girls.
The Lancet Global Health journal published a study suggesting that a reduction in maternal health services of between just 9.8 percent to 18.5 percent could lead to as many as 12,200 additional maternal deaths over six months in low and middle-income countries.
As people around the world were forced to stay home during lockdowns, emerging reports from several countries showed increased incidents of violence against women and girls, especially intimate partner violence, a recent study by UN Women found.
In many cases, increased time spent at home with an abuser, the stress caused by uncertainty about the future, financial worries combined with the reduced access to support systems – such as friends, extended family and neighbours – can exacerbate existing tensions and conflicts.
In Colombia, for example, reports of gender-based violence during lockdown increased by 175 percent compared with the previous year, according to Plan International.
In the Dominican Republic, the violence service of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, Línea Mujer, received 619 calls during the first 25 days of quarantine.
So, what can governments do to cushion the gendered impact of COVID-19?
The state of Hawaii has paved the way in showing what a post-recovery plan that addresses the impact on women and girls could look like.
— UN Women (@UN_Women) April 15, 2020
In its first Feminist Economic Recovery Plan, the island state prioritised spending not on infrastructure but on healthcare services. The plan includes maternal, sexual and reproductive healthcare services, on top of broader support for parents and caregivers.
“All the COVID and post-COVID recovery, emergency, preparedness and response plans really need to make sure health services for women, and services to respond to violence against women, are considered part of the essential package of services that are continued during and after COVID,” Amin said.
Governments also need to make sure “that social and financial protection is for those most likely to lose their jobs – and we know that by default these are women because they primarily work in informal sectors,” she added.