By Katarina Foss-Solbrekk
Covid-19 does not discriminate. It can (and has) affected us all, albeit in different ways. Indeed, this virus impacts women and men differently. Men appear to suffer more severe cases of the virus than woman, while women are - in addition to being exposed to the virus - more predisposed to the social, political and economic consequences that come with this pandemic than men. Let me cite a few examples.
Lockdowns have brought about an increase in domestic, sexual and gender-based violence for women. Closed schools may also mean less time for education and work for many girls and women because they typically resume childcare and household duties. It is, for example, reported that fewer female academics have submitted papers for publication in law journals in recent months. Publications are necessary for tenure, meaning that a lack of publications may impede future promotions. Of the millions who have now lost their jobs due to covid-19, women’s job losses exceeded men’s in almost all sectors of the economy. As women work in more temporary and part-time jobs – while earning less overall - than men, they face an increased unemployment and financial risk for future job losses too. The aftermath of covid-19 may thus involve devastating, long-term economic and social effects for women, thereby threatening to perpetuate the gender-wage gap and broadening the gender equality gap overall.
Risks to women are also present in their type of employment. In other words, they are more likely to have at-risk jobs. Women currently make up 70% of the global health force and are now on the frontlines dedicating their time, knowledge and efforts to protecting our grandparents, mothers, fathers, siblings, partners, children, friends and colleagues. Why, then, are we not protecting them better?
Not only has there been a shortage of personal protective equipment for health professionals, but much of this gear is designed for male physiques. This means that masks, gowns and face shields do not fit as they should for female medical staff, placing them even more risk. Inequalities in medicines is not a new problem. The issue of female underrepresentation in clinical trials, which are essential to ensure safety and efficacy when developing pharmaceuticals, diagnostic methods and other treatments, has remained a concern for years. Not only is this an example of gender discrimination, but it is detrimental to public health, as how women respond to particular medicines is not always taken into account. Evidently, as Caroline Criado Perez says in her book Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men: “men go without saying, and women don’t get said at all”.
Moreover, in China, health professionals have reportedly been unable to source sanitary and menstrual products. This issue is not limited to medical staff, however: ensuring access to tampons and pads has fallen on the back radar for several countries, as has protecting women’s reproductive rights, including access to proper pregnancy care and abortions for all women around the globe. The Oxford Human Rights Hub, a global community of academics, practitioners and policy-makers researching human rights and equality based at the law faculty, recently released a report on ‘Gender Equality and Covid-19’, explaining how covid-19 disproportionately impacts women in terms of their sexual and reproductive rights, and unpaid work. And, more specifically, that the UK government’s response fails to pay due regard “to the effects on vulnerable groups, particularly women who suffer combination discrimination based on multiple and intersecting protected characteristics (s14 Equality Act 2010), such as BAME women, women with disabilities, poor women, migrant women, adolescent girls, trans women and single mothers with children”.
A report by the Human Rights Campaign Foundation, a civil rights organisation that works on encouraging the adoption of inclusive LGBTQ policies and practises, also finds that many in the LGBTQ community are at greater risk for health complications, and are more likely to live in poverty and a lack of access to medical services and essentials during this public health crisis. Women (and men) from BAME, migrant or poor backgrounds are more likely to hold jobs with “limited or no rights and protection against both health risks and lay-offs”. This is particularly worrying as they are also more likely to work in at-risk jobs, have less monetary means and underlying health conditions, making them predisposed to getting a severe case of covid-19. Statistics reveal that more people from BAME backgrounds are passing away than the white British people. The death rate for those coming from the poorest areas in England and Wales is also twice as high as for those of significant wealth.
This demonstrates how much your socio-economic background matters. Equally, it evinces how pre-existing health inequalities, such as one’s socio-economic situation and access to health care, plays a role in one’s chance to fight this virus. Indeed, the covid-19 pandemic laid bare many inequalities worldwide. It is also perpetuating them, while simultaneously initiating long overdue discussions about gender, social and racial inequalities. It is vital that we keep these conversations going so we can turn words into action, and push for response and recovery policies which address any health, racial and gendered disparities in order to ensure that each and every person has a fair and equitable chance of not only surviving the virus itself, but also of the consequences which remain in its aftermath.