Recently, I saw a Facebook post about doing something wonderful and being successful during the time we practice social distancing. Similar posts cropped up in Twitter too which said that Shakespeare ended up writing King Lear during the time in which he stayed home while the Great Plague ravaged London and the rest of England.
The Washington Post also ran a similar story of how Newton who was then a student at the Trinity College, Cambridge spent his time at home and worked wonders by running physics experiments and writing papers on calculus.
Shakespeare spent most of his career in London where the theatres were situated. During the time of the Plague, he spent most of his time inside while his family – his wife and his two adult daughters spent their time safely in the Warwickshire countryside. Shakespeare’s landlady died because of the plague.
Newton was not married like Shakespeare, and Cambridge sent him home during the plague. He went back to his family estate in the north-east of England about 60 miles from Cambridge. When Newton returned to Cambridge with all his theories and research, he was made a fellow within six months. After 2 years he was made a professor.
Both Shakespeare and Newton did not have responsibilities which involved the care of other family members during the great plague which ravaged London during 1665-1666 and left 1,00,000 people dead in a city of 4,60,000. On the other hand, women because of the existing societal gender roles were left with caring responsibilities.
Surely because of this, it will be comparatively easier during this time for some men to end up with something great and wonderful. Pandemics, whenever they happened, magnified the existing inequalities of our social lives.
A World Health Organisation report of 2007 states that existing gender roles affect how men and women spend their time during a pandemic which would influence how they would be affected differently due to the different amounts of exposure and frequency with which they would come in contact with infected agents.
When the COVID-19 is considered purely as a physical illness, early studies suggested that the novel Coronavirus caused more death to men. Pandemic history and figures show that it is women who are most likely to bear the brunt.
Women make up a majority of the health care workers around the world. According to some studies that percentage is around 70% with the majority as nurses – who are at the frontline taking care of affected patients.
According to Dr Celine Gounder, an infectious disease specialist and epidemiologist, “nurses’ levels of exposure are higher than doctors since they are the ones who collect specimens and draw blood samples from patients.” In the early 2000s when the SARS epidemic spread out, more than half of the affected were women. About 21% of the affected were health care workers according to a WHO report.
The 68th round of the National Survey’s report on employment found that qualified female health workers consist of about half of the total number of the health workforce. Among different categories of health workers 88.9% are women consisting of qualified nurses and midwives.
Recently the Union Finance Ministry announced special insurance for healthcare workers who are at the frontline battling the coronavirus outbreak in India. It was a welcome move for the healthcare experts, however, days later it was evident that the compensation of ₹5 million covered only the death of health care workers, not their treatment.
This essentially meant that the workers themselves are not covered by the scheme rather their families are covered. Health staff have also protested about the alarming scarcity of protective equipment across India. This means that the majority of the health workers who are mostly women and come from economically weak backgrounds, as a result, are not covered by health insurances, and face most of the brunt.
Jibin TC, the president of the United Nurses Association in Maharashtra, India said that if nurses get affected and require hospitalisation in a private health care facility it would devastate them economically. According to a story in Scroll most mid-level nurses earn between ₹11,000-13,000 and do not have institutional health cover.
An Accredited Social Health Activist (ASHA) is a community health worker instituted by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, Government of India. They are local women to promote education about health in their community. In the wake of the pandemic, they are one of the frontline workers trying to battle the situation.
They are tasked with doing door-to-door surveys in order to identify potential COVID-19 patients. Many of them are not properly trained and some of them are not given safety equipment. In such a situation, where there is minimal structural support for such frontline workers, the violence they face while working is multi-fold. Recently an ASHA worker was abused and heckled by a man while she was doing her job. While salaries for other frontline workers like doctors and nurses were increased, the ASHA workers were left out.
Women, because of the societal gender roles, are considered to be the primary caregivers in families across many communities. They are also more likely to care for the sick one in the family. If someone falls sick due to the Coronavirus at home, it is the women of the family who stands at a greater risk of infection.
Across the world women still bear most of the responsibilities of child-rearing. This risk magnifies when schools are closed. Data from China suggested that the disease is most easily spread between family members.
During the Ebola outbreak across Africa, from 1976 to 2014 women’s vulnerability towards the disease increased because they are the primary caregivers and also prepared the bodies before burials. According to studies though, there was not a biological reason for a gender gap in cases of Ebola, it was found that women were most affected and greater risk of transmissions are present at home than hospitals.
Even if women don’t get infected, health policies in times of disease outbreak leave out women.
During the Ebola epidemic, more women died in childbirth because resources were diverted to fight infection-related diseases.
In India, too, women were forced to give birth on the road, because during the lockdown period, many migrant workers had to walk hundreds of kilometres in order to return to their homes. Without any health support for these workers, many women were forced to give birth on the road. Recently a woman gave birth to a child and, before getting any help, walked a distance of 150 kilometres.
Marie Stopes International is an international non-governmental organisation providing contraception and safe abortion services in 37 countries around the world. It warned that the worldwide lockdown will have a devastating effect on women as they struggle to collect contraceptives and other reproductive healthcare services such as safe abortions in these 37 countries.
The organisation estimates that as service delivery will reduce by 80%, and will not pick up until the end of the year 9.5 million people will not get reproductive healthcare services. This may lead to 3 million additional unintended pregnancies, 2.7 million unsafe abortions, and 11,000 pregnancy-related deaths.
Dr Julia Smith is a health policy researcher at Simon Fraser University. According to her, in a report published by the New York Times, the economic costs of a pandemic negatively affect women disproportionately. In times of social distancing when people are not allowed to go to work, it may result in job losses for women.
She said that women form a chunk of informal and part-time workers, and that those kinds of jobs are the first ones to get slashed during an economic crisis. When lockdowns are lifted, after the pandemic subsides, it is the women who find it hard to get back jobs or find new jobs. During the outbreak of Ebola in West Africa it was found that everybody’s income was affected. When normalcy returned men’s income returned quickly to pre-outbreak stages, while women’s income took time to return to the pre-outbreak stages.
In India particularly the women from the marginalised sector are employed in low wage informal sectors like for example beedi making. Women who work as domestic help, fisherwomen and sex workers are the worst affected.
According to a BBC report, schools are closed in South-Asia because of which 253 million children will stay at home. Ms Sung is a journalist who lives in South Korea. She is also the mother of two young children. She said that she has been feeling depressed as she cannot focus on the home and she wants to go back to her office.
“But, my husband is the breadwinner and can’t ask for time off.” Ms Sung also said she heard that some companies are cutting wages of women. After all, because of societal gender roles, women cannot come to work because they have to take care of the child at home.
With lockdown measures hardening around the world, many daycare facilities for children are closing and women are left with extra work at their home. In a time where the governments across the world stress on the ‘white-collar’ work-from-home it is the women at home who cannot also equally work as their men counterparts because of the ‘extra responsibilities’.
In heterosexual relationships, women’s jobs are considered a lower priority when disruptions come along and as a result, women’s earnings tend to be considerably lower than their male counterparts and male partners.
When it comes to taking care of the children many fathers will undoubtedly step up during the long hours of staying home, but it is not a universal phenomenon.
Arlie Hochschild, in her 1989 book entitled The Second Shift, explains that the household ‘responsibilities’ that a wife or mother takes care of, aside from working her paid job, add up to at least 40 hours of work.
The book asserts that in heterosexual relationships even though both the partners have paid job it is usually the woman who also works at home which she calls the Second Shift.
Although written in 1989, this phenomenon still is very much prevalent across the world. During these long lockdowns, couples are deciding how to divide this extra unpaid labour. In some Indian households, because of more stringent gender roles, women are ending up with more unpaid work while their partners are busy looking at breaking news from news channels.
In the midst of the isolation, the transgender community in India is at an elevated risk of hunger and ill-health because they live in the margin of society. Anindya Hajra, a trans woman working with the Pratyay Gender Trust on Transgender livelihood issues, said India’s estimated 2 million trans people will be among the worst affected by the change as many are living on the streets.
Although the Supreme Court declared that transgender people have equal rights, the existence of widespread prejudice against them las led to the systematic exclusion from education, jobs, and healthcare.
Many transgender persons earn their living at busy intersections, railway stations, and trains. With the country-wide lockdown, all these places will be empty, which will make earning very hard. Shonali, 24 an HIV-positive sex worker in Kolkata, told Reuters that because of the lockdown she has barely worked and she had to make her living through savings now.
Even her health check-up like many has been postponed indefinitely. Even if the supply of antiretroviral therapy is normal for the time being, the unavailability of doctors is the main problem according to Kalki Subramaniam, an activist with the Sahodari Foundation.
Right after the lockdown was lifted China reported a rise in divorce cases. Experts around the world are predicting that this may well be repeated elsewhere around the globe where couples are living indoors.
Even friendships can be affected when maybe because of the increased labour in households or domestic annoyance with partners, humans will choose their friends as a possible way to ‘let it all out’ – which may sometimes end up hurting the other person in the process.
While governments around the world are initiating lockdowns to save lives, it is more likely that many will end up being locked down with their abusers.
In the Spanish town of Almassora, a woman was killed at her home in front of her two young children. Her ex-husband Jose later confessed to killing her. In Italy, the most hit part of Europe at the time of writing, a 27-year-old woman who was just at the end of her studying and becoming a doctor was killed. She was not killed by the virus but by her boyfriend named Antonio, who later confessed to the killing.
A report suggested that domestic violence tripled in the Hubei province in China during the lockdown where the signs of the outbreak first appeared. In Brazil, a spike as big as a 30-40% rise in domestic violence occurred during the period.
In India, the National Commission for Women (NCW) receives domestic violence complaints across the country. It recorded a two-fold rise in gender-based violence (GBV) in the lockdown period. The total complaint rose from 116 in the first week of March to 257 in the final week of March.
According to the NCW Chief, Rekha Sharma, the number of cases is higher from the states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Haryana, and Punjab. When many women are still stuck inside with their abusers it is also highly probable that many of them are not able to get help.
As Rekha Sharma pointed out, most of the complaints were by email. I think emails and other forms of communication are chosen as the default option here since a phone call inside a house will attract unwanted attention.
The chief of the NCW also added, “Women are not approaching the police because they think that if they take her husband away, the in-laws will torture her. Because of the lockdown, women are not able to reach out to the police. They don’t even want to go to the police because they are afraid that once their husband comes out of the police station, he will again torture her and she can’t even move out.“
The schools and universities are the first one to initiate a closing order when there is a risk of a disease outbreak. While historical evidence and mathematical models justify school closures, it disproportionately affects the population and any long-term social justice goals.
Education comes to a standstill in especially underdeveloped and developing countries where the privilege of online classes is unequally distributed among the population. While the schools and universities are moving to online classes with routine assignments, the digital divide is becoming stark. In India, for example, there is a stark digital divide between the urban and rural areas.
Even if digital inclusion has been successfully achieved up to some extent due to cheaper prices of internet data, digital empowerment is a far-fetched idea. The onset of digital patriarchy has made digital empowerment for womxn in India a very hard thing to achieve. In the time of the pandemic, the problem has magnified itself.
The gender divide in the digital divide is very prominent. Many women tend to have (if at all they have) access to rudimentary phones while smartphones are a sign of privilege associated with men. This is even prevalent in some urban households. Therefore, when classes are moving online it is only the privileged, predominantly males who will be able to attend the online classes.
Even when restrictions are lifted as seen in the Ebola outbreak in Africa far lesser numbers of girls returned to school. Instead, they took up positions of earning for their families. It is also very likely that similar trends are seen in developing parts of the world like India as the dropout rate of girls from school will substantially increase.
During the Zika virus outbreak in Brazil, the online demand for emergency contraception pills increased. Due to the differences in power between men and women in domestic environments, (which they cannot escape from because of the restrictions) women did not have autonomy over their sexual or reproductive health.
This also happened during the Ebola outbreak and this led to a higher number of teenage-pregnancy. This essentially meant a higher number of unsafe abortions and also some girls never returning to education because of increased responsibilities arising out of childbirth.
In April of 2020, in the midst of the Coronavirus crisis, the Government of West Bengal proposed to set up a Global Advisory Board for COVID response-policy in West Bengal, headed by the Nobel laureate Dr Abhijit Binayak Banerjee. The advisory board has policymakers with a range of expertise, though, there are no women.
Most of the ministers are also cis, upper-caste men lacking the insight for a different approach in solving the problems of the marginalised sections of the society mostly women. That is why the lockdown was initiated in such a way that it shows huge gaps in policy-making and left out a large chunk of the society.
The discussion above clearly depicts that the response to COVID-19, without a gender-specific approach, can be devastating for women and other marginalised persons. The policy-making in response to the crisis should address issues through a gender lens.
Even if women are on the frontline, their engagement is low in global health security systems, surveillance, detection, and prevention mechanisms. The WHO-China joint mission on COVID-19 has only three women out of 25 members.
The COVID-19 Economic Response Task Force is headed by the Finance Minister, Nirmala Sitharaman who is a woman, though there are only two women in the 21-member committee for public health experts constituted by the Indian Council for Medical Research.
If womxn’s voices are included in policymaking, then it would be empowering, and the chance of a better-gendered approach will increase.
While it has been a trend sitting before a webcam, participating in webinars with bookshelves as the backdrop, we have seen less and fewer women in those ‘expert panels’. Since such panels mostly discuss probable policy advises the inclusion of women in those panels must be ensured to have a better-gendered policy proposal.