Disease outbreaks affect men and women differently. Early studies suggest that the SARS-CoV-2 virus may be killing more men than women. This disparity may be due to factors related to sex (biological) or gender (unhealthy habits such as drinking or smoking). At the same time, pandemics and the measures taken to control them exacerbate existing inequalities faced by women and girls.
Early studies suggest that the SARS-CoV-2 virus may be killing more men than women. At the same time, pandemics and the measures taken to control them exacerbate existing inequalities faced by women and girls
Who will assume the greatest burden of care during a lockdown period (child care, elder care at home or in residential facilities, hospital care for infected patients, etc.)?
What group will be most affected by the loss of informal employment (house cleaners, carers, etc.)?
Who will face the greatest difficulties when it comes to adapting their work obligations (telecommuting) to the needs of their children?
Who will suffer the most physical, verbal and sexual violence during confinement?
Whose mental health will suffer the most during this crisis?
Who will be the most affected by lack of access to safe family-planning methods as well as pre- and perinatal care during the lockdown?
Who will be the most harshly exploited or even enslaved when women can once again be “consumed”, as they were before lockdown, to compensate for several months of lost income?
Given the lack of a gender perspective in the measures taken to combat the coronavirus and concerns raised about the possible consequences of this omission, a group of institutions and associations that includes the United Nations Population Fund, UN Women and Women in Global Health has developed a series of recommendations. Also, there is the new Gender and COVID-19 Working Group. Its aim is generate collective knowledge in response to the pandemic with a gender perspective, based on the repercussions that the lack of planning has had on previous occasions; listen to women experts in global health and sharing resources (funding opportunities, webinars, etc.) and collaboration networks among them. It seems that while men fight publicly in the networks for showing the least evidence-based data, women establish the ways to collaborate between different disciplines and countries.
According to these institutions, women account for 70% of the health workers on the front lines of the global epidemic but just 25% of health policy decision-makers. This lack of representation in leadership positions has resulted in a failure to meet the needs of women and girls, just like in the epidemics of Ebola (2014-2016) and Zika (2016). There is also this lack of representation in the media. Why do the media hardly ever talk to female epidemiologists?
Women account for 70% of the health workers on the front lines of the global epidemic but just 25% of health policy decision-makers
From Eyeglasses to Eye Surgery
To address all the needs of women during the COVID-19 pandemic, we need to develop our vision of gender and understand the gender roles and inequities that women and girls face on a daily basis.
As activists Zua Méndez and Teresa Lozano—better known as the Towanda Rebels—explain in their book, this new vision of gender must go beyond using “eyeglasses” to look at and analyse situations; instead, what we need is “eye surgery”. Once we internalise this vision of gender, we see reality differently in every aspect of our lives.
This new vision of gender must go beyond using “eyeglasses” to look at and analyse situations; instead, what we need is “eye surgery". Once we internalise this vision of gender, we see reality differently in every aspect of our lives
A gender perspective is essential if we are to detect unfair differences between men and women and implement appropriate equity measures. We must incorporate this vision of gender into our response to epidemics, for example by reporting sex-disaggregated data, disclosing the total number of women and men working in research groups, as well as their job titles and ranks, etc., and promoting the inclusion of women scientists in all areas of work. Moreover, this gender perspective must be incorporated into research, particularly the discussion and conclusion sections of studies.
Gender roles, social norms and the behaviours expected of men and women are something we acquire and learn, and in doing so we perpetuate stereotypes of masculinity and femininity that reflect the patriarchal system in which we have been educated. These roles are being terribly perpetuated during the measures against COVID-19, as we suggest, affecting women significantly.
Gender, Poverty and Violence
To make matters worse, women are disproportionately affected by poverty worldwide, bearing the burden of care, informal work, unpaid work and the wage gap in formal work (including health care), as well as an evaluation of the academic career that does not take into account these determinants. These situations, and the patriarchal and immobile nature of our institutions, exacerbate the situation women are facing during the pandemic.
Women are disproportionately affected by poverty worldwide, bearing the burden of care, informal work, unpaid work and the wage gap in formal work (including health care)
Let me give you an example. In various televised press conferences, the Spain’s National Police said that reported cases of gender violence had decrease during the lockdown. This data, thus isolated, in addition to being false, represents a lack of interest from the police force to go to the root of the problem and try to understand the reasons. But of course, if we do not understand gender violence as a problem, we will not investigate further.
I was even more worried that millions of people hearing this message might take it at face value, believing it to be good news, when in fact the number of reports of domestic violence could well have declined because abused women—now literally locked inside their homes with their abusers—are facing additional hurdles that may prevent them from filing a report.
Recently, there has been an increase in domestic violence complaints, in Spain and in several countries that have adopted these confinement measures without a specific plan. In fact, UN Women includes in this document some recommendations to carry out research with women who are experiencing violence during confinement to guarantee their safety as much as possible. We must be alert listening to news these days, and doubt anything that seems suspicious. This vision of gender had to have been integrated into our lives long before, long before dictating measures that put the lives of women and children at risk around the world; not even talking about the lack of vision to implement these measures in other countries, such as in sub-Saharan Africa or the American continent.
UN Women has released some recommendations to carry out research with women who are experiencing violence during confinement to guarantee their safety as much as possible
Condemning gender inequity and working to end it requires a radical change in the system, moving from thought to action. This uncomfortable stance may not be enthusiastically received within or outside the scientific community. But now is the time to take a stand.
A feminist perspective is needed to address the severe repercussions of the pandemic in a global, interdisciplinary and transversal manner, to achieve gender equity, and to protect human rights for all, while at the same time promoting critical thinking.