Since the COVID-19 pandemic began last year, women have been disproportionately affected by its impact. Not only do a high number of women work in essential sectors such as healthcare, retail, and childcare, they are also bearing the brunt of having to make the life-changing choice of leaving the workforce to care for their own children. Many of these industries are also some of the hardest hit from the impact of the pandemic, and as businesses shutter, women are being laid off in masses compared to men. Even those lucky enough to be able to work from home are being tasked with the insurmountable challenge of providing the unpaid emotional labor of raising a family while doing their jobs remotely full time. COVID-19 is leaving women in dangerous peril physically, financially and emotionally.
There is no question that this pandemic is causing drastic gender disparities, especially in America where we have seen a totally botched response resulting in the highest death and infection rates in the world. Douglas Himes states in an August, 2020 article in Monthly Labor Review that “Women held less than half of all jobs (in all industries) in the United States in March, 2020. But more than half of the job losses in that month, the first wave of job losses resulting from COVID-19, were jobs that women held.” This early, disproportionate impact on women points out that to begin with, they were starting on a very uneven playing field. These figures are jarring, and have generally been glossed over by mainstream media. Nearly a year later we are just now starting to see mainstream news stories highlighting how deeply this pandemic is harming women. Himes also noted that “Nonfarm payroll employment (reported by the establishment survey) declined by over 700,000 in March 2020.” The majority of the jobs affected were in travel, retail, hospitality, education and health services . These numbers have only continued to grow in the past year. Women all over the world who were already struggling to stay afloat in these often low-wage jobs are now in serious danger financially. Job losses in these sectors also mean a loss of health insurance for the lucky ones who even qualified through their employment, making these women especially vulnerable. It is likely that with the looming potential of a global recession, many of these jobs will never return. Without ensuring that women with children who try to return to work have access to affordable or free child care, women are looking at returning to a post-pandemic world where gender equality is permanently paused and economic growth is halted.
The healthcare industry employs a huge number of women who are putting their lives on the line daily to save others. The stress and risk involved in these jobs is immense and is impossible to contain to the workplace. These women are facing childcare challenges as well as the stress of often having to quarantine away from their own families due to the exposure level of their jobs. Dr. Inez Miyamoto highlighted in an article for Security Nexus Perspectives that 70% of healthcare workers are women, but only 25% are in senior roles in the healthcare profession. Many of these jobs are unpaid volunteer work or underpaid part-time positions in reception and scheduling . Those who do this type of work receive few benefits and are walking a tight rope with no safety net. If women in these underpaid positions are exposed to or contract COVID-19, taking the necessary time off to quarantine and recover is devastating. This loss of necessary income often means that these women will not be able to pay rent or buy food.
Women who work in healthcare are facing extreme exposure to COVID-19 on a daily basis, often without the access to proper PPE. When it is made available, the fit of the PPE is ne size fits all. Such PPE is often not sealed enough to provide full protection for the female body because it is mass-produced from patterns created to fit men, who are generally larger. S.Nanthini, and Tamara Nair noted in their article, COVID-19 and the Impacts on Women that “This in itself is discriminatory — the assumption that the ‘generic male’ is representative of all. The low availability of properly-fitting PPE, together with the high rates of women involved in frontline health work, may explain why in some countries the infections among female health workers are more than twice that of male health workers.” Many medical staff are having to reuse PPE that would normally be thrown away after one use due to shortages. The rate of female health care workers who are testing positive for COVID-19 compared with men is shocking. Miyamoto states that data from July, 2020 showed that “In Spain 72% of infected healthcare workers were women (5,265) and in Italy 66% of infected healthcare workers were women (10,657). Similarly, in the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 73% of infected healthcare workers were women (6,603)” . Ill-fitting PPE is clearly a problem that needs to be addressed, especially considering the fact that the number of women in healthcare outweighs men significantly.
Another major issue that issue that has arisen during this pandemic is that more people are putting off routine health care visits due to fear of contracting COVID-19 from medical offices. This is affecting all facets of the healthcare system. Miyamoto notes, “To add to an already stressful environment, medical staff are facing layoffs, furloughs, or reduced hours as non-essential medical procedures are canceled or postponed. Initial unemployment data in the United States showed more women losing jobs than men in the healthcare sector” . The avoidance of care isn’t just a problem for job losses. Women are putting off critical annual exams including heart health, pre-natal, mammograms and pap smears which can lead to fatal results. In developing countries, women are being faced with disappearing humanitarian resources that they once relied on for non-urgent care. Due to travel and distancing restrictions, aid groups who once were able to help are restricted. Nair and Nathini took a look into these secondary impacts and state that “Health resources that would normally be available for other areas, including vaccinations and reproductive and sexual healthcare, are instead being reallocated towards emergency COVID-19 response, depriving women of vital healthcare and potentially translating into higher mortality rates for women” . We will not know the true scope of the long term effects from the avoidance of care and care access issues for years to come. We can see an example of the outcome of lack of healthcare access when looking back at the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone in 2014–2015. During this period there were an additional 3,600 stillbirth, neonatal and maternal deaths .
Emotional health is a key factor to maintaining physical health, and healthcare workers are facing the challenge of trying to sustain their own emotional health while working in these unchartered conditions. The amount of anxiety, death, depression and stress they are facing daily would push anyone to a breaking point. In our lifetimes, there has never been an event that caused so much death for such a sustained period of time. It is hard to fathom how difficult it must be to have to hold an iPad while someone is dying so they can speak to their families one last time. No amount of training could have prepared anyone on how to handle death at this scale, not just once but every day for months at a time. Some healthcare workers have compared the experience to what it must feel like to work in a war zone. When a study of healthcare workers was done in China in March, 2020, it was found that women were experiencing far more severe anxiety, depression and feelings of distrust than men were . The women in healthcare are burnt out, overwhelmed and traumatized. They will need extra mental health care and support to process what they have seen in order to move forward. There is no telling how many women who have worked on the front lines will choose to leave these professions due to PTSD. These decisions will only increase the probability of women being swallowed into the developing gender gap sinkhole that this pandemic has caused.
Normally, going home would provide some relief from the stresses of work, but there seems to be no relief for healthcare workers who are also mothers. The stigma of working in healthcare has made it hard for them to find people willing to risk providing them with childcare. Children being home from school closures is causing women to drop out of the workforce in astonishing numbers that we have never seen before, not only in healthcare, but in all areas of work. Miyamoto states that “In dual-parent households, school and daycare closures and sick family members force couples to choose who stays home as the unpaid caregiver. The burden for unpaid care, however, tends to fall on women, which is especially problematic in single-parent households headed by women. For example, researchers estimated that 1.7 million Canadian healthcare workers are single mothers to young children” . In normal times, being a single parent was incredibly challenging, but now due to social distancing measures it has become hard for women to get the help of family, neighbors and friends whom they once relied on for vital childcare. They are being backed into a corner and faced with the bleak option of sacrificing their jobs to care for their children, or risking their personal and family’s health in exchange for the sparse childcare options available.
So how do we help the women who are on the verge of being erased from the workforce forever? Miyamoto suggests, “By focusing on the development of gender-responsive and gender-transformative policies, institutions and communities, it is possible to build a more resilient society centered on individual health and wellbeing.” We also need to take a good look at the reason so many more women than men work in jobs that are being eliminated. A huge factor is the fact that young girls are steered toward these professions in childhood through gendered play and toys. Making sure that young girls receive equal education in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) will be extremely beneficial to closing the existing gender gap in the workforce and preventing a situation where women bear an overwhelming share of the burden from ever happening again.
Whether staying home for caretaking reasons, job loss or safety, women are no doubt spending more time with the men in their lives. For women who were experiencing domestic violence prior to the pandemic, being able to go to work or freely leave the house may have been their only chance of escape. Now they face being trapped inside with their abusers 24/7. Additionally, the stress of quarantine restrictions has led to rising tensions in homes. Where violence my have already been simmering it is now boiling over. Increases in domestic violence are being seen worldwide. Nanthini and Nair report that “The Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE), a women’s rights group in Singapore, has reported increases in the number of family violence calls since the country’s lockdown began in March, with a 137 percent increase in May 2020” . While some of these women may have once felt comfortable seeking haven in a women’s shelter, they are staying home because of fear of contracting COVID-19. The few shelters that are available are often too full to accept women in need. Many shelters are having to take alternative measures to keep women safe. Nanthini and Nair note that “With social distancing in place, crisis shelters are also experiencing over-capacity problems. In order to deal with the surge in cases, organizations such as Hollaback Jakarta! are pooling resources with other similar organizations to rent temporary accommodation for survivors requiring emergency escape” . With more children being home from school, the increase in violence in homes is likely to be witnessed far more frequently by them and create long-term psychological impact. Unfortunately it is not likely that domestic violence will decrease as the pandemic fades. Nanthini and Nair state “Domestic violence rates are also unlikely to decrease after the immediate health crisis is over as the economic impact of COVID-19 is likely to linger, further stressing households, and the women who bear the brunt of it” .
There is no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic will forever change those who survive it, but it is clear that its emotional, physical and economic impact on women will be seismic. This is heightened by the fact that women were not on equal ground with men to begin with. The path to recovery will need to include specific pathways and assistance for the women who have been most affected, to assist them in returning to the work force. Access to free and affordable child-care, mental health services and job training will be essential to empowering women and helping them get back on their feet. If care is not taken to ensure that women have access to these necessary resources, we are facing a setback in gender equality that could take 50 years to eradicate.