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Coronavirus: Women are at the frontline fighting the pandemic, but their welfare is being neglected

From unpaid labor to domestic violence, pandemics lead to more burden on women around the world
UPDATED MAR 20, 2020
A woman wearing a protective mask carries a toilet paper package on the street on March 13, 2020 in New York City. (Photo by Jeenah Moon/Getty Images)
A woman wearing a protective mask carries a toilet paper package on the street on March 13, 2020 in New York City. (Photo by Jeenah Moon/Getty Images)

As governments around the world gear up their response to the novel coronavirus outbreak, a closer look is required at how women are playing a crucial role in combating the spread of the disease and the added difficulties facing them.

Over 145,000 cases of the COVID-19 infections have been confirmed globally, while around 5,500 people have died due to the illness. The disease -- which was first reported in China in December 2019 -- has now spread to over 100 countries.

The outbreak is disproportionately affecting women more than men. However, in most cases, it also shows how women are crucial to fighting the pandemic as well as the economic impacts of it.

Healthcare Workers

Women often play various roles when it comes to controlling epidemics, the most obvious role that comes to mind is that of a healthcare worker. Frontline care puts more women at risk than men -- over 90% of nurses in the United States according to a US Department of Labour study are women, while around the world, over 70% of health and social care workers are women, according to a study by the World Health Organization (WHO).

However, despite forming a majority of the healthcare workforce, women's needs are also often overlooked. Jiang Jinjing, the woman behind the Coronavirus Sister Support, campaign told the publication Sixth Tone that women's menstrual needs are being overlooked while formulating policies to combat the disease.

Sixth Tone also spoke to Bai Meidaijia, a lecturer in gender and media studies, who said that neglecting such female needs is a classic example of gender discrimination. “Women’s menstruation should be the authorities’ concern when it comes to policymaking,” Meidaijia said. “The media always describe women’s contributions by emphasizing their gender — like women cutting their hair to go to the front line. But when it comes time to acknowledge their physical needs, those in charge fail to do so.”

School Closures

Another instance of epidemics and related outcomes affecting women disproportionately comes from the mass closures of schools and universities across the world as countries try to control the spread of the COVID-19 infection.

Women are more likely than men to stay at home to look after kids, even in the situation where they are working. A study by the US Bureau Labor of Statistics showed that women are ten times more likely than men to take time off to stay at home and look after sick children.

39 percent of working mothers reported taking time off to care for their sick kids, 33 percent reported sharing the responsibility with their spouse, while 16% reported calling in someone else to help. Of the 39 percent of working mothers who take time off, 60 percent reported that they did not get paid.

Domestic Violence

In another report, Sixth Tone outlined a surge in domestic violence during the COVID-19 outbreak. With millions spending more time inside their homes, rights activists say there have been increasing instances of domestic violence — a crime in China since a landmark anti-domestic violence law went into effect in March 2016.

 Feng Yuan, the director of Beijing-based women's rights nonprofit Weiping, told Sixth Tone her organization had received three times as many inquiries from victims than they did before quarantines were in place.

"The police should not use the excuse of the epidemic for not taking domestic violence seriously," she says.

Economic Impacts

The majority of workers in the industries that has been hit especially hard by the coronavirus pandemic are also women who occupy roles such as flight attendants, teachers, and those in the service industry.

With another recession expected to hit resulting from the outbreak as well as the drop in the price of oil over disagreements between Saudi Arabia and Russia, the world economy is expected to grow at its slowest rate since the 2008 financial crisis.

Migrant domestic workers are especially affected by travel bans and quarantines. In most countries, these women do not have legal contracts in place meaning that their employers can withhold their pay and even leaves them vulnerable to sudden layoffs without compensation.

Unpaid Labor

Women tend to do a majority of the unpaid labor around the world, including activities like cooking, fetching water, and caregiving to children as well as the elderly. For women, coming back home does not mean the workday ends -- it only means that she goes on to do unacknowledged and unpaid work.

With more people staying at home during the Coronavirus pandemic, many of them in self-isolation, the burden falls on women to care for most families while exposing them to additional risks. As companies opt for work-from-home and kids stay at home following school closures, it only means that more work gets added rather than having it easier as most would expect. 

An Oxfam report from earlier this year showed that women spend more than 12 billion hours globally on unpaid labor. Moreover, this work adds to the economy a revenue of at least 10.8 trillion dollars -- which Oxfam suggests is an underestimate with the true figure being far more.