It is too soon to tell if COVID-19 coronavirus affects people’s bodies differently according to sex, but evidence shows that women and girls are especially vulnerable to global health crises.
The COVID-19 coronavirus is a highly contagious respiratory illness spread through human-to-human transmission. Women, who make up 70% of the health and social service workforce, are on the frontlines of the response effort to treat and stop the spread of the virus.
As countries worldwide have closed schools and set travel restrictions in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, mothers around the globe are faced with the burden of balancing childcare and working at home. These responsibilities are in addition to the disproportionate amount of domestic labor women already do.
Organizations dedicated to women’s health are urging the world to consider gender in coronavirus relief efforts. The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) released a gender guidance document on March 19, and UN Women shared a COVID-19 checklist on March 20 for policy- and decision-makers working to address the global pandemic.
“An effective response to pandemics needs to really look at gender dynamics in a meaningful way,” Sarah Hendriks, UN Women policy director, told Global Citizen.
It is crucial to ensure the availability of sex-segregated data, Hendriks said. UN Women is not only looking at differing rates of infection but the economic impacts, differential care burden, and domestic violence rates, which are exacerbated by epidemics.
With just 10 years to go until the UN’s 2030 deadline to achieve the Global Goals for Sustainable Development, Hendriks said the urgency of coronavirus must not detract from long-term visions for the future.
“It's really important that the world's focus on gender inequalities does not become yet another victim of COVID-19,” Hendriks said.
Please check out this Checklist for COVID-19 response: a practical set of questions for decision-makers in taking steps on COVID-19 to support and protect everyone.— Sarah Hendriks (@sarah_hendriks) March 20, 2020
By UN Women Deputy Executive Director Åsa Regnér https://t.co/DdBqDIP7At via @UN_Women
Pandemics worsen existing gender inequalities and can make it more difficult for women and girls to receive treatment and health care, the UNFPA’s guidance document explains.
During the Zika outbreak, women had limited access to reproductive health care and financial resources. And in West Africa, women were disproportionately infected by Ebola because they were more likely to be the sole caretakers in their families and work in health care.
Both outbreaks significantly limited availability to family planning and posed serious threats for pregnant women, Hendriks said. It is still unknown if COVID-19 affects pregnant women more severely.
When health care systems are forced to channel all of their resources to combat an epidemic, sexual and reproductive health care can be overlooked — despite the persistent need for adequate family planning, menstrual health resources, and maternal care.
UNFPA Supplies has already delivered sanitation and protective medical supplies to vulnerable communities affected by COVID-19 in China, Iran, and the Philippines.
Women who are underpaid, non-protected, or hourly workers are also forced to put their health at risk when they leave the home to earn a living, Hendriks said. The World Health Organization (WHO) is encouraging people to self-isolate to contain COVID-19, but for many low-income women who hold insecure jobs, not going to work is not an option.
“When we look at women's economic and productive lives, we see how a pandemic like COVID-19 can and will likely have enormous effects on women as workers,” Hendriks said.
In times of crisis, women face increased financial instability. Policy- and decision-makers should be asking how they are targeting economic responses and whose interests they are serving, the UN Women checklist advises.
Governments also need to prioritize services for the prevention and response of increased domestic violence and other forms of gender-based violence, particularly in the context of self-isolation, Hendriks said. Levels of intimate partner violence spike when households are placed under increased stress and families are forced to live in confined spaces.
“As we go forward to look at recovery and growth, there's going to be an important opportunity to see that with the gender transformative lens,” Hendriks said.
You can join the global coronavirus effort by taking meaningful action through our Together At Home campaign against COVID-19, including calling on world leaders to properly finance relief efforts, spreading the word about the World Health Organization's COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund, helping protect refugees in Europe, and learning about the virus and how to stay healthy.
You can see all of Global Citizen's COVID-19 coverage here.