Pandemics & Patriarchy–Enacting a gender-sensitive COVID-19 response

Su-Yin Lew

As the world weathers the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is starkly evident that its impacts will extend well beyond public health and into the economic, social and political realm. During a pandemic, it pays to remember that gender mainstreaming is neither a luxury nor a pointless tool in determining our reaction and action. Rather, gender is a cross-cutting dimension that must be factored into the analysis and actions of policymakers, researchers and responding organisations for improved response. Existing social and economic patterns shaped by gendered norms are amplified by pandemics, becoming determining factors in vulnerability and impact.


On the frontline, women remain in the majority with the World Health Organization reporting that close to 70 per cent of workers in the health and social sector are female. Over-representation in nursing, elderly care and childcare roles can leave women with a disproportionately higher risk of contagion exposure. From an economic standpoint, women continue to make up a larger proportion of part-time and informal workers across the globe. Such jobs tend to hold greater precarity alongside lower wages, fewer healthcare provisions and leave allowances for sickness and care–all of which contribute to greater hardships during a pandemic.


Women can also bear the brunt of lock-down measures as the world migrates to working-from-home and social distancing. As children require schooling and the sick need caring for, households are increasingly becoming strained. This situation will likely exacerbate already unequal burden-sharing as women, on average, completed three times more unpaid care work at home even before COVID-19.


Additionally, the conditions needed to flatten-the-curve exacerbate situations of domestic violence as victims become disconnected from vital support networks and confined to dangerous spaces. For example, in China’s Hubei Province, where the number of domestic violence cases reported to police tripled in February when compared to 2019; an issue which is aggravated by such situations.


In times of crisis, over-stretched healthcare systems necessitate resource redistribution. While such measures are understandable, diverting resources from maternal and sexual healthcare services can have detrimental side-effects. During the Ebola virus outbreak in Sierra Leone, the number of deaths from obstetrics complications was higher than the number of infectious diseases itself between 2013 and 2016. Though maternal mortality varies in criticality across the globe, recognising potential indirect consequences is integral to an effective response.


It is evident that COVID-19 is exposing gendered fault lines in our homes, communities and countries. The question then is, how should policymakers enact a gender-sensitive response to better mitigate its impact?


The starting point should be to ensure data disaggregation. Of over 29 million papers published in over 15,000 peer-reviewed titles worldwide on the Zika and Ebola virus outbreaks, fewer than one per cent examined gendered impacts. COVID-19 presents a situation which should rectify this knowledge and research gap.


Governments and policymakers must be actively considering the differences in their response. This means questioning whose interests’ responses serve and tailoring economic packages and public messaging in a way that pays attention to what is happening both in public and in the home. Raising issues such as whether handouts engender economic dependence within the home or recognise the unpaid care economy are central to a gender-equitable response, as noted by UN Women Deputy Executive Director Åsa Regnér. Equal burden-sharing in the home should be actively encouraged, and adequate support and direction provided for vulnerable groups such as refugees, single parents and informal workers. This would also include accounting for the specific needs of female healthcare workers, such as the provision of menstrual hygiene products, a necessity initially dismissed in China.


Guaranteeing the ‘essential’ opening of, and funding for, domestic violence support services through economic hardship serve as both a practical and symbolic recognition of the dangers home isolation holds for some. At a bare minimum, high-level decision making should aim to be diverse and representative. The failure to include female experts was all too apparent as Elizabeth Warren called out an early meeting of the White House Coronavirus Taskforce. In such turbulent times, making use of the capacity and knowledge of women’s and other advocacy groups and organisations strengthens the response. Deepening our research and policy response through gendered analysis will be pivotal to recovery and preparedness efforts.


This pandemic is a public health issue, but it is also a social and political issue of equality and privileges, gendered and beyond. Though an unprecedented situation, it is a chance to recognise an opportunity for positive change. We would do well to take heed of this call to action to rethink deep-seated social expectations, recognise privileges and support one another–from a distance.


Su-Yin Lew is a Master of International Relations student from the University of Melbourne and intern with UN Women in New York City. She is also a former YAIA International Security Fellow and DFAT intern.

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