Dr Dharmakanta Kumbhakar

The Covid-19 pandemic has devastated our lives in an unprecedented way. It has not only impacted our health but also affected our personal life, psychological well-being, social life and economic sustainability. One can assume that the Covid-19 pandemic doesn’t discriminate against gender, equally impacting the lives of men and women around the world, but this is simply not the case. Although everyone has been impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic, women and girls seem to be shouldering the burden more than their male counterparts. New research has revealed that while men are affected more by the novel coronavirus than women both in contagion and mortality, women are especially affected more than men by the economic and social fallout during the Covid-19 pandemic. Across every sphere, from health to economy, the impacts of the pandemic are exacerbated for women and girls. The pandemic is deepening the pre-existing inequalities between men and women, exposing vulnerability in personal, social and economic systems, which are in turn amplifying the impacts of the pandemic.

Women are at the frontlines of the Covid-19 response, putting them at a higher risk of exposure to the virus. They make up about 70% of the workers in the health and social sector globally and constitute most health facility service staff. Women make up more than 85% of nursing personnel and healthcare workers, and almost half of the doctors worldwide, who tend to have particularly close and prolonged contact with Covid-19 cases, which puts them at heightened risk of infection by the novel coronavirus, are women. In fact, data shows that female health workers are infected by the virus twice the rates of their male counterparts. The issue of inadequate and ill-fitting personal protective equipment (PPE) is likely to be a factor here as most PPE kits are sized primarily for men in all countries. The health and well-being of these female care workers must be a core part of the response to the outbreak. Women must have a role in decision-making, which is presently less in this sector, then only the female care workers will get the facilities.

Women are taking multiple responsibilities during the pandemic. The pandemic is increasing the duties of the girls and young women especially those caring for elderly and ill family members, as well as siblings who are out of school. The burden of unpaid care and domestic work has exploded since the beginning of the pandemic, but women are continuing to shoulder the bulk of that work. Schools and day-care closures, along with reduced availability of outside help, have led to months of additional work for women. Mothers are taking on more childcare responsibilities. About 80% of mothers now say they’re doing most or all of the housework and homeschooling. For working mothers, this has meant balancing full-time employment with childcare and schooling responsibilities. Multiple responsibilities have put several strains on the mental health of women. About 57% of mothers now report depression and anxiety compared to only one-third of fathers. It is a complex problem that’s going to take time to solve.

Global lockdowns during the early period of Covid-19 pandemic have led to several women and girls being stuck at home with their perpetrators and incidents and reports of violence against them have been on the rise globally. The National Commission of Women in India has also reported a surge in the reported cases of violence during the pandemic in India. As per the WHO, the global lockdowns left women and girls vulnerable to domestic, physical, mental and sexual violence as it had cut them off from social support and services. The violence on women has resulted in injuries and serious physical, mental, sexual and reproductive health problems, including sexually-transmitted infections, HIV, and unplanned pregnancies. Violence not only negatively impacts women but also their families, the community and the nation at large. The local governments now must ensure accessibility and referral pathways to medical and psychosocial support, and mental health services for survivors of sexual and gender-based violence during that period.

The Covid-19 pandemic has major impacts on the health of girls and women. Restrictive social norms, gender stereotypes, home quarantining and diversion of resources to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic have limited women’s ability to access health services as well as make them more susceptible to health risks. Women’s access to maternal and reproductive health services has been severely impacted due to Covid-19 emergency response and global lockdowns. Efforts to contain the outbreak have diverted resources from routine health services including pre- and post-natal healthcare and contraceptives. The Covid-19 pandemic must not be used as an excuse to restrict or rollback women’s access to essential maternal and reproductive health rights, which must continue to be prioritized, funded and recognized as life-saving.

Emerging evidence on the impact of Covid-19 pandemic suggests that women’s economic and productive lives have been affected disproportionately and differently from men. Across the globe, women earn less, save less, hold less secure jobs, and are more likely to be employed in the informal sector. Women have suffered more job losses than men under the Covid-19 lockdown, and their post-lockdown recovery has also been much lower. As per a report, about 11.5 million women lost their jobs compared to 9 million men during the pandemic globally. Some are calling it a ‘she-cession’. Urban women reported substantial or total loss of income during the lockdown. Those employed as domestic workers were laid off in large numbers; many went back to their villages, and most have not returned since as they are not easily rehired. Even the women who have managed to find jobs, or have re-established their trades as self-employed workers, have not had an equivalent restoration of incomes. Poorer women with limited or no revival in earnings have had to deplete their meagre savings. Many have become indebted, and, in time, could be forced to sell their limited assets such as small animals, bits of jewellery, or even their tools of trade, such as carts. A loss of assets would seriously jeopardize their economic futures, and raises the spectre of deepening poverty, even destitution. This may indirectly increase school drop of girl students and girl child marriage also.

The world is thinking today how to rebuild from the pandemic. The rebuild from the pandemic cannot be gender blind as impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic is more on women. It needs to factor in specific support needs for women as well.

(Published on the occasion of International Women’s Day today.)