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The lack of gender sensitivity in the preparation for and subsequent response to the pandemic has only compounded the challenges. Gendered data has often not been factored into crisis-management planning strategies, nor has it been consistently gathered during the response. This is unsurprising; however, it has had consequences. The current coronavirus crisis has highlighted that women comprise a huge percentage of essential personnel – nurses, primary caregivers, and other essential workers such as cleaners and shop assistants. Women therefore make up the majority of ‘frontline’ workers who are risking their lives during this pandemic.
Historically, the key responder role has frequently been denied to women. For example, policymakers and military leaders still argue about what combat roles women should be allowed to take in security forces. This can be linked to concern over how female deaths in the line of duty might impact male comrades or worries about the perceived insensitivity of asking women to actively participate in taking a life. And yet, there are many stories emerging now about female medical workers who have chosen to leave their families to save lives. In some cases, they are unfortunately paying for these sacrifices with their own lives. There is also recognition of the psychological pressures on medical staff who are having to actively decide who lives and who dies.
Despite advancements of women in the workplace, both in terms of numbers and in careers previously considered 'male', employment can still be gendered. For example, women are more frequently employed as nurses or carers, in part due to the gendered societal perceptions that they are more caring, and these are typically low-paid roles. And yet, the pandemic has rightly challenged assumptions about women's feminine nature, proving that women – just as men – can operate under severe pressures in difficult circumstances.
The demand for women at the frontline of the pandemic response also intersects with areas of private life, in ways not always predicted or prepared for. The current situation has presented new challenges to the public–private divide society often tries to impose. Although not always the case, it highlights the common expectation that the household and parental duties are the responsibility of the female partner and adds even more pressures for single mothers.
Even in a time when both partners might be working from home, there appear to be difficulties in challenging these gendered expectations. For example, there is already an emerging trend in academia, where ‘men are submitting up to 50 percent more than they usually would’. In contrast, women – who might now be more tied up in other duties such as childcare – ‘seem to be submitting fewer papers’. This could have a knock-on effect over time, with female academics potentially being at a disadvantage in future appraisals. While it appears that women may be statistically less at risk of dying from the virus itself, they are more at risk of the other negative impacts associated with the pandemic than men.
In Western countries, more than half of minimum and low-wage workers are women; therefore, they will be more impacted by the economic crisis associated with the pandemic response. However, as bad as the impact of this crisis is in the West, we have to remember that the repercussions of the global crisis are magnified exponentially in developing countries. Here, the gendered implications of lockdowns and the corresponding economic crisis impact women even more disproportionately. Often, in these countries, what little economic independence women enjoy comes from small business ventures. These are likely to be the first to suffer due to the economic downturn. This could in turn impact community resilience and feed future insecurity.
The pandemic is also having disproportionate personal health repercussions on women. In many places across the globe, women’s sexual and reproductive care has been scaled back or put on hold, due to the immense strain the pandemic has placed on medical care systems. To some, this may seem like a reasonable sacrifice. However, to women who are pregnant, seeking an abortion or dealing with concerns about giving birth and disrupted birth plans, these are indispensable services and decisions which cannot be postponed – decisions which will impact the rest of their lives and potentially the lives of the children they bear.
Another unequal personal impact of the pandemic is an increase of gender-based violence (GBV) and domestic violence cases, the majority of which are directed at women. Although this was expected to occur as a result of the government-ordered lockdowns, the scope of the problem needs to be fully acknowledged and addressed. While the concern of GBV is usually focused on women, the impact it can have on people of all genders and ages needs to be publicly recognised. Physical and psychological forms of abuse have life-long repercussions for all members of a household, and people need accessible alternatives to being confined with their abusers. Hotlines and charities are working to provide victims with alternatives; however, there has been a ‘surge’ in violence in recent weeks. Unfortunately, increased stressors and close conditions not only exacerbate existing problems but can also foster new ones.
While the gendered impacts considered above relate to both ‘public’ and ‘private’ experiences, in reality they overlap. Times of crisis tend to highlight the intersection of inequalities and the invalidity of the imagined public–private divide, as each of these gendered impacts fuels the other.
The contributions of women – from mothers to nurses to world leaders – need to be acknowledged and the inequalities they face eradicated in order to better prepare for future crises. Hopefully, the world can take a lesson from this pandemic on the ways in which gender inequality increases the vulnerability of individuals and overlooks the exceptional abilities of women as key responders.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
BANNER IMAGE: Nurses practice social distancing while donning PPE at Craigavon Area Hospital in Co Armagh, Northern Ireland. Courtesy of Niall Carson/PA Wire/PA Images.