Most healthcare workers on the front lines are female, but there is another pandemic that plagues women during times of health crises: gender inequality. Epidemics and pandemics further gender inequality as women struggle socioeconomically and in healthcare. Gender equality can combat world poverty, but diseases can slow societal advancement for women.
Society and the Economy
Globally, 740 million women work low-paid and informal jobs, which they are quick to lose during pandemics and epidemics. The livelihoods of women are at risk with an increase in job insecurity and job loss during times of crisis. During the Ebola outbreak in Liberia, closed borders caused women to face much higher unemployment rates than men since 85% of cross-border traders are women.
In the developing world, 70% of women work informal jobs, but women’s unpaid labor boosts global economies and should not be ignored. According to the United Nations Foundation, “women on average do three times more unpaid care work than men.” Women who work to care for their families bring in $1.5 trillion to the world GDP. Jobs without pay create even more inequality as women stay at home, complete domestic tasks and care for the sick. The burden of caring for the ill in the family puts women at a greater risk of falling ill. More West African women were affected by Ebola because they worked in hospitals or aided the sick at home.
A shelter-in-place due to pandemics can result in girls dropping out of school and puts women at a higher risk for violence. As seen from the Ebola outbreak, closures of schools put young girls at high risk for pregnancy and child marriage. During country-wide lockdowns in 2020, women have to remain with their abusers. Domestic violence against women tripled in China and increased by 30% in France. Even more shocking, some use the exposure of COVID-19 as a means of suppression against women.
Although 70% of health workers are women, men make most of the decisions in the healthcare sector. Only 27% of women are executives in world healthcare. This gender segregation in healthcare leaves women in lower roles and creates a bias towards men. Personal protective equipment uses male sizes and thus does not protect female workers as effectively. In Spain, 5,265 out of 7,329 health workers infected by COVID-19 were women. Data collection may ignore gender in some studies, which makes it harder to understand the current trends and how they affect women.
While most healthcare resources are focused on fighting pandemics, women’s health may be overlooked. More women in Sierra Leone died from obstetric complications than from Ebola. COVID-19 will likely cause 18 million women to not be able to acquire contraceptives in Central and South America. Providing fewer health services during pandemics has detrimental effects on women’s health.
Pandemics affect both men and women, but 80% of the WHO Emergency Committee on COVID-19 are men. In order to provide women with more representation during the COVID-19 pandemic, the United Nations has created the campaign Operation 50/50. The campaign aims to accomplish five goals: recruiting more women for leadership roles, valuing women’s unpaid care work, providing better conditions for health care workers, utilizing gender attentive data and funding NGOs for women. Around the world, women have a high risk of exposure to disease, whether that be in the healthcare field or staying at home with the sick. Elimination of gender inequality in healthcare will increase safety for women during global pandemics.
– Hannah Nelson