The idea that this pandemic is not the much-proclaimed great equalizer has already been ascertained, given the way in which Covid-19 has affected Black and Latino citizens in NYC.
In this difficult moment, women all over the world — despite having a lower mortality rate from the virus compared to men — have been penalized in almost every other aspect.
The pandemic is laying the foundations for a world that could revert women’s status to what it was decades ago, by aggravating the already precarious female condition in our society.
Let’s start with the present situation. Men hold the majority in almost all fields of work considered essential by governments during the worldwide lockdowns — except one: the medical profession. While almost everywhere there are more men physicians than women ones, nurses — who are on the frontline taking care of Covid patients — are mostly women.
In the Americas, 86 per cent of nurses are women, and the same goes for the European and Western Pacific regions, where women constitute more than 80 per cent of nurses. With hospitals and nursing homes almost always being the epicentres of the pandemic, around 70 per cent of the medical staff who became sick with Covid-19 in the US, Italy, Spain and Germany were women. (The situation is thought to be the same in many other states, but few of them provided disaggregated data on the basis of sex.)
However, when it comes to the rest of society, women are less likely to work, or to work full-time, and are penalized by the gender gap. In Italy, for instance, before the pandemic the female employment rate barely reached 50 per cent, with almost 1 in 4 women working only part-time. Since tourism has always been one of the largest sectors to employ women, the pandemic’s catastrophic effect on travel will inevitably bring down the employment rate further.
In the US, women are statistically more likely to be laid off during the current recession compared to men. This is primarily because they generally perform less essential jobs or jobs that are more difficult to convert to ‘Smart Working’. Women are also heavily employed in the sector of house cleaning and elders assistance, with many being migrants and often undocumented while working abroad and sending home part of their profits. Such labour in the Philippines, for example, accounts for 9 per cent of the GDP. Right now, those without proper work papers find themselves in a very vulnerable position. With unclear immigration status and lack of legal protection, as well as being ineligible for government assistance measures, life has become that much harder for the women occupying this part of the labour force.
The above predicament is now looking like it will become a permanent fixture in the working conditions of many women all over the world.
For those who have been temporarily forced to stay home because of the lockdown, things are not much better. Many women simply won’t be able to return to work when all this ends. One well-known reason is the issue of childcare. Among heterosexuals working couples, women statistically carry out more childcare than men. Given their prescribed social role as natural caregivers, this will inevitably influence the decision of who will have to stay home to look after the children during school closure periods — especially if childcare is limited, expensive or simply not avaialble.
The situation is even more complicated for single parents. In the US, 19 million children live with just one parent and 70 per cent of these parents are single mothers. Many women have had to quit their jobs to stay with their children, despite losing what is often their only source of income.
Sadly but not surprisingly, this pandemic has also led to a worrying increase in cases of domestic violence — a phenomenon that has been noticed previously during other financial crises or natural disasters. Stress, financial insecurity and the possibility for abusers to have complete control over the life of their victims, has caused domestic aggression to rise. This has been reported by authorities and anti-violence centres through two opposite trends. Countries like France, Australia, India and the US experienced a dramatic rise in calls to the police and to emergency hotlines related to domestic abuses. In the first week of lockdown, France saw a 32 per cent rise in reported cases of domestic violence.
At the opposite end of the problem, in countries like Spain, Italy and Argentina reports of violence have not only not grown, but have miraculously decreased. In Argentina, they dropped from 50 a day to 5. Lockdown has trapped victims with their abusers who control all their moves and prevent them from being able to report instances of violence.
In response, many European governments, with France as a forerunner, introduced the possibility for victims to call for help at pharmacies. Many argue that this is not enough.
Another predicament faced by women has been accessing abortion clinics in some parts of the world. In the US, twelve states have promulgated laws that labelled surgical abortion — and in some cases also medical abortion — as a non-essential medical procedure.
Lawsuits in favour of abortion providers have successfully stopped some of these bills, but bans in other states haven’t been challenged yet. Fortunately, the possibility of abortion by telemedicine is a growing option for many women, but Republican senators have already introduced a bill to ban this procedure.
In Italy, the situation is more complicated. Abortion is not illegal, but there is a high rate of conscientious objection among gynaecologists, especially in the central and southern regions. During this pandemic, many hospital wards that practiced surgical abortions have been converted into Covid wards making the procedure impossible to practice. Regarding medical abortions, Italian law is already very strict and requires women to take abortion pills under hospital supervision, which has been very difficult.
This pandemic is silently dismantling many of the feminist achievements of the past few decades. Unless governments produce gender-sensitive policies to support women in the immediate future, it may take years before things return to (at least) the current state of progress.