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Opinion: The coronavirus: Will women fare worse than men?


Like most Americans working remotely during the pandemic, I’ve been comparing notes with colleagues and friends on how we’re keeping everything together. Particularly, there is a theme to the conversation. After discussing how hard it is to keep up with the ever-changing news cycle and how we are handling the terrifying possibility of the virus affecting our families and loved ones, invariably the conversation turns to the herculean challenge of juggling work, caring for children and managing household responsibilities. You know — the normal challenges of being a working woman.

These conversations prompted me to consider how the coronavirus will affect women differently than men.

From a mortality perspective, according to a March 24 report by the World Economic Forum, research from China suggests that “while COVID-19 is infecting men and women in about equal numbers, women appear less likely to die from the virus than men.”

But while there’s a lower mortality rate for women, other inequalities persist. Research indicates that pandemics do affect men and women differently; a pandemic actually magnifies all existing inequalities. Therefore, it is likely that women will suffer economically and in terms of indirect health outcomes from the coronavirus.

In an article titled “The Coronavirus is a Disaster for Feminism,” in the March issue of the Atlantic, the author looked at recent pandemics (Ebola; Zika and recent outbreaks of SARS, swine flu and bird flu). Academic research revealed that “they had deep, long-lasting effects on gender equality.”

One striking finding: While income across the board was affected by the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, “men’s income returned to what they had made pre-outbreak faster than women’s income.” Indeed, there was a ripple effect that hurt women — declining rates of childhood vaccination led to children contracting preventable diseases, which then forced their mothers to take time off work.

In the coronavirus pandemic, a similar ripple effect will also affect women, who traditionally do three times as much unpaid care work as men. Providing special care or assisting relatives who may be vulnerable or relatives with the virus increases that care burden.

In other pandemics, school closures had consequences. Mass school closures across the globe and in the U.S. will disproportionately affect women, because despite advancements, we still bear more responsibility for child care. Past pandemics have also led to more girls dropping out of school, often exacerbated by teen pregnancies. In addition, during pandemics there has been rise of domestic and sexual violence against women. While we have not yet seen reports of these behaviors, they are almost inevitable in a prolonged period of sequester and stress.

Reports of past pandemics also showed that overall women’s health declined because all resources were diverted to the outbreak. In particular, maternal health outcomes suffered. This already is happening today. Elective surgeries and annual OB-GYN exams are being canceled or delayed, and women giving birth in hospitals are at high risk. Abortions are being considered elective despite the time sensitivity of the procedures.

Finally, and perhaps most saddening, is the fact that women make up the majority of health and social care workers. Right now, women even more than men are on the front lines of the fight against COVID-19. Caring for others may come at a steep price.

What does this mean for us as women, or for us as a society of men and women together? Awareness and action are key. If a pandemic exacerbates underlying inequities, we must first acknowledge those social inequities or obstacles for women and we must be vigilant in addressing those barriers.

For employers, it means continuing programs to support and advance women, even at a time when budgets are being slashed. As a society, we must not waver in providing education, access to health care, and protection for women. In our households, it means striving to divide labor in a truly equitable way.

Knowing the outcomes from past pandemics, we can take a hard look at our own workplaces, communities and personal actions and ask: Are we bound to repeat history, or will we support women this time around?

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