Women & COVID: Crisis or Opportunity?

The Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has spread around the world with over 5 million cases reported to date. However, with a large segment of the world’s population affected, women are being disproportionately impacted by the pandemic yet continue to be excluded from critical decision-making forums. This article will highlight the roles women are playing in response to the pandemic, how we’re uniquely impacted by the crisis, and what we as women professionals can do to improve our condition in the wake of the pandemic.

“I feel like an octopus with eight tentacles because I am the centre person in my family — they trust me”

Lean In, Elbowed Out
Women are on the front lines of the COVID response: according to the World Health Organization (WHO) women account for at least 70% of the global health-care workforce; in China alone, 90% of medical health workers are women. In addition to healthcare, women are also at the frontlines of providing elder care and comprise the majority of domestic responsibility, according to the Family Caregiver Alliance. The Alliance’s data shows that more than 75% of caregivers are women and spend 50% more time caring for a family member than men. Julienne Anoko, Risk Communications Specialist and COVID responder for WHO-Africa can relate. Ms. Anoko explains, “as a woman and as a professional I am managing many tasks, I feel like an octopus with eight tentacles because I am the centre person in my family — they trust me.”

Despite women being active at the frontlines, there is a lack of representation of female leadership in the COVID response globally. For example, just five women are on the WHO’s twenty-one-member COVID response board. According to Anika Kstic, Country Director for Plan International in Sudan, “it’s completely devastating that we do not have women making decisions in the COVID response.” The immediate impact of this exclusion is impacting work on the frontlines of the COVID response. Ann Lee, CEO of CORE, an NGO operating COVID testing facilities across the US, noted that women are effective in the collaboration necessary towards a successful response, noting that leadership ‘[does not] have to be harsh, [rather] you need to make people want to do the things you want them to do.”

“It was only a matter of time before domestic violence cases shot up, everybody’s focus is on treating COVID-19 patients, and basic services for women are sidelined”

Bearing the Brunt
Whilst data from Global Health 5050 shows that more men are dying from the virus than women, women are experiencing the brunt of economic and social impacts of the pandemic. A report by Bloomberg Businessweek states that women are most likely to suffer the social and economic impacts caused by the virus in the form of layoffs and budget cuts. Industries such as hospitality, retail, and tourism- which are female-dominated- have been hit the hardest by the pandemic with unemployment rates in these four sectors as high as 38% globally according to the International Labour Organization (ILO). We spoke with Andrea Tracy, a Senior Transition Advisor at USAID, about her frontline work in Sudan and the attendant economic impacts on women due to the pandemic: “It’s stressful because I’m currently living in Sudan — [a country] that was already dealing with myriad struggles including an economic free fall and failing health system. While governments are working hard to contain the virus, including efforts such as closing the airport early and imposing a curfew, it’s a difficult response given more than 80% of the population work in the informal sector and therefore can’t afford to be locked down.”

In addition to disproportionate job losses, women also face heightened dangers in the home. The United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres issued a statement addressing the issue of the rise in domestic violence cases citing that, “…cases of domestic violence have surged and doubled”, with economic and social pressures contributing to the spike in domestic violence. Domestic violence cases shot up by 36% in France and tripled in China in the month of February alone. As Ms. Krstic notes, “it was only a matter of time before domestic violence cases shot up, everybody’s focus is on treating COVID-19 patients, and basic services for women are sidelined”.

The Way Forward
Given the challenges women face vis-a-vis safety in the workplace and home, and their economic fragility in the wake of the pandemic’s attendant socio-economic impacts, immediate improvements are needed. The Humanitarian Women’s Network (HWN) compiled best practices ongoing in the field to propose four concrete ways for humanitarian professionals to alleviate the challenges faced by women and improve the overall COVID response writ large.

  1. Provide Workplace Protection: the World Economic Forum cites this as including adequate equipment, equal and emergency/hazard pay, safe housing options to female frontline workers, and access to services that reflect their needs as individuals, such as mental health and child care services.

Team at Humanitarian Women’s Network