Pandemics are Not Gender-Neutral: The Ways in Which COVID-19 Has Highlighted Feminist Issues

I want to start this piece with a quote which particularly resonated with me when doing research on this topic:

“Enough already. When people try to be cheerful about social distancing and working from home, noting that William Shakespeare and Isaac Newton did some of their best work while England was ravaged by the plague, there is an obvious response: Neither of them had child-care responsibilities.” – Helen Lewis

Although, I am not one of these women who have childcare responsibilities, as a feminist, I have the responsibility to become aware of intersectional issues happening amongst my sisters. This isn’t going to be a fluffy, or uplifting piece about how women are helping save the planet (even though they are), I intend for this to be an educational piece, which forces the reader to empathise with the struggles some women are facing across the globe.

Front-line health workers

The World Health Organisation estimates that women form up to 70% of the workers in the health and social sector, which inherently leave women at greater risk of exposure to pathogens. The United Nations Institute for Disbarment Research evidence this by highlighting that during the 2014-2016 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, women were primarily responsible for caring for the sick, partly explaining the disproportionate number of female Ebola cases in Guinea and Liberia.

In China, the story of a nine-month pregnant medical worker who had suffered a miscarriage but was quickly rushed back to work was meant to serve as a heroic act for the Chinese public to be inspired by. Instead it faced major backlash, and was considered propaganda, the BBC reported that one user wrote it was “blindly advocating women to fight on the frontlines regardless of their health.” The BBC spoke to one nurse there, and was informed staff weren’t allowed to eat, rest, or use the toilet during their 10-hour shifts – if this wasn’t bad enough for all staff, the specific needs of women workers are often overlooked. The United Nations Women’s Regional Director for Asia and the Pacific reported that, “In Asia, emerging findings from the health response showed that menstrual hygiene products for women health workers were initially lacking as part of personal protective gear,” said Mohammad Naciri. In times like these, health policy questions need to be asked such as, what are the different needs and priorities of women and men in these working conditions?

The global pay gap

In her article, Helen Lewis highlighted that the British government are currently reporting that 40% of employed women work part-time, compared to only 13% of men. Further research has highlighted that in heterosexual relationships, women are more likely to be the lower earners, leading to their jobs being considered as a lower priority when a disruption may come along. As Lewis emphasised, this particular disruption of COVID-19 could last weeks, or even months more, suggesting some people’s lifetime earnings will never recover.

But this isn’t the case just in the UK, Sylvia Katooko, executive director of the Suubi Centre (providing sexual and reproductive health services and income-generating skills for young women in Uganda) reported that for where they are, “Women are the most affected.” Specifically, social distancing measures restrict access to markets selling the women’s goods and preventing trips to community gardens where women and girls often grow food. In turn, long-term risks are imposed onto their financial freedom, and ability to provide to anyone that they need to.

Further, even though each individual’s income was impacted by Ebola, SARS, and bird flu outbreaks, Julia Smith, a health-policy researcher at Simon Fraser University informed the New York Times, that “men’s income returned to what they had made pre-outbreak faster than women’s income.” What needs to be in place is an awareness of what resources (economic, financial, physical, natural, other assets) women and men have access to, so correct provisions can be in place.

Domestic abuse and trauma

The 2017 report of United Nation of Drugs and Crime found that almost 6 out of 10 women who are intentionally killed, are murdered by an intimate partner or family member. Further, a WHO report conducted in 2013 found that almost 1 in 3 women globally have been physically or sexually abused in their lifetime. These numbers implicate that with a large amount of people being forced to lock down with their abusers, gender-based violence could rise to levels that we have never seen before. The BBC reports that the National Domestic Abuse helpline has seen a 25% increase in calls and online requests for help since the lockdown. Further, visits to the helpline were 150% higher than during the last week in February, and hundreds of more calls were received compared to two weeks prior to the lockdown.

Unfortunately amongst my research I’ve comes across tens, and tens of examples of instances I have mentioned above, and for the sake of this piece not turning into an essay, I’ve left my sources for this article, and further reading below if anyone would like a deeper dive. Specifically though, the national domestic abuse helpline website, and phone number is highlighted directly below:

Free, 24-hour hotline number: 08082000247

Stay inside. Stay safe.


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