Women on the Frontlines of COVID-19
The coronavirus pandemic has thrown into sharp relief the existing divisions and privileges in our society. As we know, in any disaster or humanitarian emergency, the vulnerable are the ones who suffer the most.
The higher number of deaths for communities of color relative to their percentage of the population shows the racialized lack of access to healthcare and the greater underlying health conditions related to access to nutrition and lack of clean air. The CDC wasn’t collecting data about race until April 17, 2020 so it may be some time before we truly understand the impact on communities of color.
We’ve seen how wealthy communities have had access to tests, while poor communities have had difficulties finding tests to distribute to those showing the symptoms. Access to testing has barely improved, and its ongoing lack of availability is a public health threat.
Yet another societal division is gender. Women are more likely to hold essential jobs, such as frontline healthcare workers, long-term care providers, and grocery workers. Women also hold many of the service sector jobs in places like restaurants and retail stores, which were among the first jobs lost. Women also tend to do more of the unpaid labor at home, such as caring for children or elderly parents and household chores. With childcare centers and schools closed and more people staying home, more of this burden is falling on women in addition to their normal work.
As more people are following lock-down or stay-at-home orders, reports of gender-based and domestic violence continue to rise. Countries around the world have seen sharp spikes in calls to domestic violence hotlines and in reports to police. With movement restrictions and loss of income, women become trapped with, or dependent on, their abusers. It’s also probable that child marriage rates will rise due to education disruption, the family’s economic stability, and/or the belief that their daughter’s future will be more secure.
With a clampdown on non-essential medical procedures, access to reproductive healthcare has been restricted. Some pregnant women fear visits to health care facilities, and when they do visit, they find fewer doctors and medical supplies available. Pregnant women have been told by hospitals that their birth partners are unable to join them in delivery rooms causing additional pain and fear. Unplanned pregnancies are on the rise globally due to restricted access to contraception. In the US, six states deemed abortion procedures as non-essential and have closed clinics and barred doctors from performing them. Court battles have ensued and some of those states have been forced to allow clinics to reopen.
Globally, women and girls are the ones responsible for collecting water, buying food, or tending to shops to support their families, thereby putting themselves at risk for contracting the virus. For poor women, the choice is risking their health to buy food or fetch water or to starve.
We’ve known that women participate in a disproportionate share of the unseen labor around the world. This pandemic has brought that unseen labor to light. Women of color are even more impacted due to the racial disparities underlying our existing systems. This pandemic can be a moment of opportunity for us to change our systems to benefit everyone. When we increase paid family and sick leave, we help everyone, but particularly women. When we increase access to healthcare, we help everyone, but particularly women. When we raise the minimum wage, we help everyone, but particularly women. When we include women in decision-making spaces, we help everyone, but particularly women.
Let us advocate for greater inclusion of women in politics and for policies that lift up marginalized communities, including women.
Rebekah Choate is the Associate for Global Advocacy and Education for Global Ministries