Gendered Impacts Of The Covid-19 Pandemic Demand A Gendered Recovery
By Vastal Raj
Vatsal is a student of law at National Law University, Lucknow in India. Presently, he is interning as an External Relations Associate at the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees, India in New Delhi. His pieces on international human rights law have been published by organizations such as Faculty of Law, Oxford University, United Nations, LSE Social Policy Blog and Cambridge Journal of International Law Online among others.
Year 2020 was intended to be a year of celebration, marking the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, widely regarded as the most comprehensive and progressive blueprint for advancing women’s rights. However, the breakthroughs and limited progress made towards achieving universal gender equality in the past few decades, are at a serious risk of reversal due to the gender-blind COVID-19 response. Women play a disproportionate role in disease response, both at home and the workplace. Pandemics compound existing gender vulnerabilities and perpetuate intersecting inequalities to the extent that at times the collateral is worse than the actual impact itself. The UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres has termed the Coronavirus crisis, “above all, a human crisis” and has called for a domestic violence “ceasefire” amid an alarming global surge in violence against women and children (VAW/C). In a recent address to a virtual town hall with young women and civil society organizations, the Secretary-General observed that the pandemic continues to chip away at decades of fragile progress on gender equality and cautioned, “Without a concerned response, we risk losing a generation or more of gains.” The warning rings true for the United States of America.
As pre-existing horizontal inequalities continue to magnify the effects of the crisis, in the United States, the pandemic has exposed longstanding racial and gender disparities inherent in the country’s economic and healthcare response systems. Although, women constitute 51% of all reported COVID-19 cases in the United States, there exists a crippling insufficiency of women’s representation in the national policy and decision making platforms for COVID-19. In February 2020, when the US Coronavirus Taskforce was announced, it had only one woman as its member, this has now been increased to two female healthcare experts. Furthermore, there exists a stark contrast in COVID-19 infection and death rates based on education, race and gender. Preliminary data, which provides detailed characteristics of 640,000 infections detected in nearly 1000 US counties, indicates that Latino and African-American residents are three times as likely to be infected as their white neighbors. African-Americans represent 13% of the US population but as of September 2020, account for 22% of all coronavirus deaths. It is disconcerting to note that the virus is killing African-American and Latino people at twice the rate that it is killing white people. The data also tells the harrowing tale of the intersecting racial and gender wealth gap. Members of racial and ethnic minority communities, especially women of color, are at an inordinate risk of COVID-19 exposure through working in informal and social sectors of the economy and residing in crowded living spaces. Vulnerabilities faced by women at home, on the frontlines of healthcare and in the economy must be addressed with gender-conscious response measures based on reliable and actionable data which is representative of the inequities of society.
The COVID-19 pandemic does not discriminate and neither should our response to it. Our ability to bounce back from this crisis is dependent wholly upon how inclusive our response is. Until recently the United States had neither compiled nor analyzed gender-disaggregated data on the impact of COVID-19. However, the data collected by the government is incomplete and is not nearly enough to understand fully and respond effectively to the effects of the crisis on unpaid care work, rising female unemployment and the disproportionate health risks faced by female frontline workers. Therefore, there exists a profound need for gender-disaggregated data to reduce conditions of vulnerability and strengthen capacities to tackle crises. According to CDC the gaps in their data exist due to the nature of the national surveillance system which depends on the local agencies. The urgency to close gender data gaps has never been more pressing. The local statistics offices must actively collect, analyze and interpret gender-disaggregated data. The gendered impacts of the pandemic demand a gendered recovery rooted in evidence based decisions implemented through a gender lens that allows for a finer understanding of the implications of the COVID-19 crisis.
In its 2017 Final Report, the UN High Level Panel on the Global Response to Health Crises recommended “focusing attention on the gender dimensions of global health crises” It observed that “greater attention must be paid to the disproportionate burden on women during health crises both in the health sector and with regard to economic and social impacts on women and girls.” However little has been done in this regard in the past three years. Women’s rights have become an afterthought in State’s response plans resulting in violations of obligations under CEDAW. Policy makers and organizations must be guided by the inalienable principles of gender equality found in international law to ensure that strong gender analysis becomes a “reflex” embedded in national health and emergency response systems. Women in the informal and social sectors of the economy and healthcare have been the most severely affected. Gender disaggregation of data obtained from the aforementioned sectors is a fundamental stepping stone in tailoring strong gender sensitive economic and healthcare responses to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Economic Response System
Less than a few months ago, almost one-third of the US economy, estimated at $21 trillion, was idle in the wake of the pandemic’s costly fallout. The sharp drop in employment in the first three months of the COVID-19 recession is more than double the decrease effected by the Great Recession over two years. Women have been hit harder by the economic downturn and face a 19% more risk of unemployment than males given the disproportionate representation of women in sectors negatively impacted by the pandemic. Considerably more women than men lost their jobs from February to May, 11.5 million as compared to 9 million. Women’s loss of income has a drastic impact on their families’ well-being. The situation is worse for the 23% family arrangements in the United States that are single-mother households. 66% of all minimum wage workers are women and work in the most vulnerable sectors of the economy. 74% of women work in highly feminized social sectors such as leisure and hospitality, retail, education and health services. Employment in these sectors shrank by 18%, compared to 10% in other sectors and they collectively account for the hardest hit sectors of the US economy. As a result a higher percentage of previously employed women have lost their jobs, compared to men. For example, according to the National Women’s Law Center, women accounted for 48% of the industry workforce in the retail sector but accounted for 61% of job losses in April. Similarly in the education and health services, women made up 77% of the workforce but accounted for 83% of job losses.
Informal jobs are the first to disappear in times of economic uncertainty. Women employed in the informal sector find it harder to work from home because of the nature of work and the lack of privileges such as paid leave, favorable labor laws and health insurance. Based on research findings, 28% of male workers in the United States hold jobs that may easily be done from home, compared to only 22% of female workers. Moreover, African-American and Latina women continue to be in the pandemic’s bullseye as the racial digital divide severely limits their ability to work remotely. Less than one in five black employees and approximately one in six Hispanic employees are able to work from home for the lack of more inclusive economic support systems. Across the United States, 43% of the African-American and Latino workforce is employed in the service or production sector which does not allow for teleworking arrangements. Comparatively only 1 in 4 white workers hold such jobs. Black women are twice as likely as white men to have been laid off or furloughed due to the pandemic. Given these stark differences, a thorough gendered analysis on the economic impact of the pandemic is needed so as to enable informed decision making involving effective allocation of limited resources to the sections of society that need them the most.
One-size-fits-all economic response systems have often proved to be wholly unsuccessful. Despite the growth in the number of jobs recorded, starting in June, women remain extremely vulnerable to monetary shocks and are being left out of the economic rebound. Presently, the majority of the female workforce falls outside the ambit of social safety nets since access to them depends upon formal participation in the workforce. The $2 trillion stimulus package did little to help in the long-run, especially in the absence of systemic gender-informed changes in the current government response and recovery mechanisms. Policy-makers must deemphasize blanket stimulus checks and focus on re-configuring unemployment benefits to target the most severely affected demographic, in this case, women. Women who are most in need of assistance rarely qualify for unemployment benefits due to their interrupted work histories. Governments, in issuing unemployment claims, should be sensitive to the diminishing eligibility of women. For every dollar that a man makes, a woman earns a meagre 82 cents, this exacerbates the cyclical gender-based education gap as women hold two-thirds of all student loan debt in the United States and find it harder to repay their outstanding debt. As a consequence of the increased monetary stress, more women are forced into the informal sector of the economy. The cycle needs to be broken. Placing women at the heart of recovery plans is paramount. Government interventions must incorporate a gender-lens to narrow the gender-based education gaps in order to ensure greater participation of women in the formal economy.
The world’s formal economies are built on and sustained by the invisible and unpaid labor of women. The unpaid care economy is the backbone of the COVID-19 response, valued at a staggering $10.9 trillion, exceeding the combined revenue of the 50 largest companies in the world. The pandemic is a care crisis, since it has exacerbated the already uneven gendered burden of care work. Two-thirds of the caregivers in the United States are women, and carry out two-and-a-half times more unpaid household and care work than men. COVID-19 has disproportionately increased the time spent by women on family responsibilities by one-and-a-half to two hours. Studies indicate a negative correlation between female workforce participation and time spent on unpaid care work. Therefore, the pandemic response must empower women engaged in unpaid care work by providing more resources to those who assume primary responsibility of household work. Reports suggest that instances of domestic violence and sexual exploitation spike when households are placed under unprecedented stress that emanates from the lack of economic security. The true nature and extent of domestic violence remains an unknown and therefore unaddressed variable in government response plans. More data could mean more responsive systems that could eliminate the cause behind the pandemic-induced surge in domestic violence. VAW stems from gendered inequality in power dynamics, both at home and work. To remedy this, evidence based mechanisms that put cash in women’s hands, granting them direct access and control of funds, must be adopted to design an effective fiscal stimulus.
The Healthcare Response System
Women have had an indelible impact on healthcare. In the United States, women hold 76% of all healthcare jobs and make up more than 85% of nurses. This puts them on the frontlines of the COVID-19 response, hence, exposing them to a significantly higher risk of infection, violence and intimidation. Data from UN Women shows that COVID-19 infections among female healthcare workers are twice that of their male counterparts, in some countries. ‘Frontline first’ has to be more than mere rhetoric. Women healthcare workers suffer from a fatal shortage of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). Male-default thinking has led to widespread complaints of ill-fitting PPE, unfit for female use owing to the fact that the equipment had been manufactured according to the male-default size. The shortage of PPE has compromised maternal healthcare services and is the root cause for the surge in preventable deaths. A combined reading of the Occupational Safety and Health Convention, 1981 and the Occupational Health Services Convention, 1985, makes it amply clear that the State has an obligation to minimize the risk of occupational hazards such as disease contraction by ensuring workers have health information and adequate protective clothing and equipment. Given the heightened vulnerability of women frontline workers, the procurement of life-saving PPE should be the cornerstone of the national healthcare response. To save lives governments should subsidize the production of PPE for female healthcare workers in order to incentivize manufacturers to ramp up production in the face of sudden rise in demand.
Multiple studies indicate that women healthcare workers have reported COVID-19-related anxiety, depression and insomnia in alarmingly disproportionate numbers as compared to men. In response to the rising concerns about the pandemic’s emotional impact, National Institute of Mental Health and CDC have offered suggestions for healthy coping mechanisms and stress management. However, this is not nearly enough when viewed in light of the increasing urgency to mitigate severe imbalances in the gendered impacts of the outbreak. The ICESCR mandates that governments should create conditions that, “would assure to all, medical service and medical attention in the event of sickness”. Administrators should ensure that all COVID-19 testing and treatment facilities incorporate weekly sessions to check on the mental health of their workers and collect data to better inform policy-makers. In addition, women have been historically underrepresented in health research and testing. Women belonging to racial and ethnic minorities face difficulties in accessing culturally responsive healthcare information and harbor a deep-seated mistrust towards medical systems owing to historical abuses. Stigma spreads faster than the virus and therefore, women are at a greater risk of falling prey to the COVID-19 ‘infodemic’. Governments must fight mistrust with information. Building trust through dissemination of reliable information is key in times of crisis. Women care givers are often at ground-zero within communities, enabling them to identify early trends of disease outbreak and intervene effectively. Strengthening community healthcare is indispensably interlinked with the targeted dissemination of accurate information. Women’s organizations engaged in community healthcare are particularly vulnerable and many are worried for their financial and organizational survival. By allocating sufficient funds and extending support to women’s community healthcare organizations, governments should improve female access to testing and medical information.
Stay-at-home orders in the United States have been associated with a surge in domestic violence and limited access to support services, including shelters. Women often find themselves trapped with their abusers and feel most threatened where they should feel safest, their homes. By redirecting critical resources, including sexual, reproductive and mental health services, governments are deprioritizing the assistance needed by women. Institutions that aim to protect women from domestic violence are straining to respond to the increased demand as they are weak and underfunded. Women deserve additional codified protection during COVID-19 and other such emergencies. UN Resolution 1325 and CEDAW Recommendation 19 on VAW, advise countries to amend their domestic laws to create a legal framework that provides additional protection during times of emergencies, including global pandemics. Therefore, Violence Against Women Acts under the United States federal law and other state specific statutes must be amended to comply with CEDAW and pillars of the UN Resolution in order to ensure emergency preparedness and provide increased funding for grassroots workers. The added financial support will enable grassroots workers to tackle the shadow pandemic of domestic violence decisively. Testing centers must screen patients for domestic violence in all clinical encounters and remain extra vigilant to identify women who may have experienced domestic violence or appear to be at risk for violence. Lastly, the ICCPR requires the restrictions on movement to be reasonable and proportionate. Accordingly, state governments should be supportive of women stepping out of their homes to escape or report domestic violence.
All this while, women’s sexual and reproductive health has been suffering at the hands of several states, including Texas, Ohio and Oklahoma, attempting to restrict “non-essential” medical procedures and stop surgical abortions indefinitely. Although, Courts have granted injunctions in some states only recently, the ban on surgical abortions in Texas and Arkansas remains partially in force. Moreover, recent changes to Title X have adversely affected the reproductive rights of women belonging to low-income groups by severely restricting access to preventative services such as contraception. This policy decision is in direct contravention of the Siracusa Principles, asserting that States should adopt the least intrusive and restrictive measures to reach its lawful objective. Women’s right to exercise power over their own reproductive decisions is enshrined as a basic human right in Article 12 of CEDAW. CEDAW Recommendation 24 requires countries to eliminate discrimination against women in accessing health-care services, particularly in the areas of family planning and pregnancy. As per the UN Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights, reproductive health is intertwined with the successful realization of multiple human rights such as the right to privacy, right to education and prohibition of discrimination. Women rights are human rights. Gender equality is no different from any other human right and therefore must be protected and upheld, now, more than ever.
The urgency to recover from the gendered impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic will only increase once the crisis is over. A gendered response to the pandemic will lay the groundwork for an inclusive post-COVID recovery. The clearest lesson learnt from past pandemics is the relevance of gendered public health and socio-economic responses in mitigating the inordinate health and economic risks faced by women in times of crisis. The visible COVID-19 pandemic has aggravated the severity of the invisible gender-inequality pandemic. The two pandemics must be met with one unified gender-conscious response by developing systems for the real time tracking of gender-disaggregated data that is representative of the entire population and is not self-serving in its objective. Only then can governments and organizations close existing gender gaps and prepare for future emergencies.