What will soon be termed as a major historical event is currently taking shape right in front of our eyes. In the course of the past five months, the pandemic COVID-19 or as famously called the novel coronavirus has wreaked havoc throughout the world. More than 200,000 deaths across countries have been reported at the hands of the disease. The international forum has halted all its commitments, as the nation-states now focus on getting back on their knees as they fight against this virus.
Whether it’s a war or a pandemic like the one we face today, the effects of these hazards are never “equally hazardous” to all. The poor, the minorities and the women , always end up being the worst sufferers in any time of crisis. Our world has witnessed various epidemics and pandemics, from Spanish flu to Ebola, and when a gender lens is extended towards these crisis , it becomes clear how the risk of the consequences exponetially increases on women and the non-binary people. These adverse consequences arise from a flawed foundation that is deeply rooted in the patriarchal ideals, which transcend borders. Since the outbreak of novel coronavirus, the reported cases of domestic violence have spiked, the responsibilities of women and expectations from them to work within a household have increased manifolds and its recorded how women have less power and voice in the policy responses and discussion making processes related to the pandemic.
The National Domestic Violence Hotline of the United States of America recorded a growing number of women reporting how their abusers are using COVID-19 as a tool to further isolate them from their friends and family. Similarly, in India, the National Commission for Women recorded a more than twofold rise in gender-based violence since Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a nation-wide lockdown. In the Hubei province of China, the heart of the initial novel- coronavirus outbreak, domestic violence reports to police more than tripled in one county alone during the lockdown in February. While men also experience domestic violence, women make up the majority of victims, with LGBTQ individuals also facing elevated rates of domestic violence. The reportage of these cases has been from households with the availability of internet connections and mobiles. What still remains in the dark is the abuse and torture that occurs within the homes of people with no means or technology to even reach out to commissions. This makes them more vulnerable. What makes it worse for the sufferers is the fact that the medical health professionals are already overburdened right now. The fear of catching the virus also refrain the sufferers from visiting the hospitals. To stay at home is a safety measure , but is it really safe for all? While the lockdowns all across the countries are an important measure to contain the spread , it is also important to formulate policies and measures recognizing the differing effects of a crisis on men and women. It would be unsound to expect effective action and response from the police at all times, thus, in such situations, the decentralization of support extended towards women should be executed. The involvement of civil society and relevant organizations to tackle the issues can put in place a better system of response and actions.
Although withstanding the current analysis of the medical impact of the virus, there appears to be a higher mortality rate amongst men, but the broader impact and the social consequences fall disproportionately on the shoulders of women. More than 70 percent of the workforce of the health and the social sector comprises women. This increases their chances to be at the receiving end of discrimination. It also poses a risk to their sexual health, as well as psychosocial needs. Lack of healthcare facilities and resources for women right now can lead to a higher mortality rate. A need for the creation and execution for an environment safe enough for women to work in, must remain intact and should not be compromised with, even during the face of any crises.
Women are also widely viewed as the primary caregivers and the discriminatory social norms in place put pressure on the woman to be responsible for every chore, from maintaining cleanliness at home to preparing each meal. In heterosexual families with dual-income earners too, the expectation somehow falls on the women to look after the household duties. Not only this, their traditional role as primary caregivers for the sick, increases their exposure to the diseases. The 2002-2003 SARS epidemic and 2014-16 Ebola outbreak stand as a testimony for the same. The Women and Family Ministry of Malaysia on March 30’2020 released recommendations and tips for women on “how to manage their households and husbands during the movement control order”, which included suggestions like “giggling coyly, regularly wearing makeup and dressing up neatly”, etc. The Ministry removed this list of recommendations after receiving wide backlash, but an official body putting in place such a list in the first place shows the inherent sexism of the governing bodies. This stems from a foundational problem and conditioning, which should be actively tackled, with governing institutions using their power and voice to encourage the equal distribution of workload amongst households.
A gendered lens towards a global health crisis can help mitigate the outbreak in a manner, where it doesn’t further aggravate the economic and social consequences. The pandemic is not exclusively a medical issue anymore. With the lockdowns in place and a halt on trade activities to flatten the curve, the businesses and economy at large have come to a grinding halt. We’re in the stage of recession, which puts the livelihoods of a lot of sections of communities in danger.
Women, who are over-represented in the lowest paying sectors, are especially vulnerable to this. Women representation in the field of nursing and as domestic help is very high. Therefore, the unemployment amongst these low-earning groups will hike. With lower incomes or no jobs, these women would likely channel their money towards getting daily bread and that can come at a cost of their sexual and reproductive health. The need of the hour is to involve more women in the formulation of decisions. It is important to pass the mic, cover the voices and extend the lens in the policymaking process. Any response action taken to contain the spread of the virus needs to also weigh and measure the other social consequences it may have. To divorce a gender lens from formulating policies to tackle the crisis seems like the easier option, but it ends up creating more difficulties than solving the problem at hand. A lack of investment towards a regulated collection of gender and age disaggregated data in all surveillance and monitoring efforts impedes smart decisions and strong responses.
As Melinda Gates has rightly said, “The disease and its effects are not gender-neutral. Our response cannot be either.” The policymakers cannot divorce the solutions for containing the spread away from gender. The measures taken now will come to define the future of millions of women and girls around the globe. An all-gender inclusive health policy helps to make the global health system more inclusive, responsible and allows for better responses and swift recoveries.
(Epcita Shukla is a first year student of the MA International Studies Program batch of 2019-21 at the Symbiosis School of International Studies, Pune)
Disclaimer: Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Indian Review of Global Affairs or of Symbiosis School of International Studies.