Amidst my on-and-off self-isolation as a female health care worker, I read Caroline Criado Perez’s Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men, an intriguing discussion on how Ebola affected women differently than men that has led me to ponder how COVID-19 is affecting women everywhere.
As has been discussed by others, substantially more women are in high-risk professions, deemed essential services, than men. Many more women are working as nurses, personal health aides, medical lab technicians, childcare workers, respiratory therapists and cashiers. Compounding the increased exposure on the front lines is getting to and from work since they are more likely to take public transportation than men, thereby increasing their risk of exposure even more. The need for public transportation may also preclude women from getting tested for COVID-19 if testing is done via drive-in services.
In addition, social distancing is altering key stages of women’s lives. Reproductive rights have regressed because of a condom shortage and, depending on where one lives, restrictions on access to abortion. A shortage in the range of 100 million condoms is the result of the world’s largest condom company Karex Berhad halting condom production due to a lockdown. This may result in more unplanned and unwanted pregnancies. At the same time, abortion has been deemed a non-essential medical procedure in parts of the United States including Alabama, Arkansas, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Texas. Instead, women are either forced to keep an unwanted pregnancy in these states or travel to another state to pursue abortion, both of which have financial and personal implications since travel is restricted to prevent the spread of the virus. At the other end of the spectrum, fertility treatments have been put on hold indefinitely, according to the American Society for Reproductive Medicine.
These policies, in place because of COVID-19, effectively have forced some women to give away their independence in deciding whether to have babies.
Depending on the country, pregnant women may not be allowed to have their husbands or partners present during pre-natal appointments or even during labour. Going through pregnancy is distressing enough but doing it without the in-person support of your partner makes it even more daunting.
Imposing physical distancing has had the unintended consequence of rising rates of domestic violence since victims can no longer escape their abusers. Victims of domestic violence are overwhelmingly more likely to be women than men. There have been various attempts to help domestic violence victims worldwide, including the use of a code word by victims to pharmacists in various European countries to trigger police intervention and the launch of an online chat and text service out of Ottawa.
One of the most important takeaways from COVID-19 has been that despite the stay-at-home orders, the person who takes on informal, unpaid work has not really changed – the majority of unpaid work at home involving childcare and managing the household still falls on the shoulders of women. For women juggling jobs that may have now led to them to work from home along while concurrently performing childcare and other household duties, this can be an incredibly stressful time.
In the older adult population, women are disproportionately affected by dementia, with up to two-thirds of cases affecting women. The surge of deaths in the older adult population due to COVID-19 has led to barring visitation to senior’s facilities. However, being deprived of in-person interactions with loved ones can ultimately worsen dementia and lead to more frequent bouts of agitation.
All of this is to say that women are being affected in very different ways than men by COVID-19. Decisions being made at the highest levels of government (primarily by men) need to include the opinion of the other half of the population (women). This is critical not just for managing the pandemic now but also for mitigating the negative repercussions of our current decisions when COVID-19 finally is said and done. As Antonio Guterres, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, recently said, “put women and girls at the centre of efforts to recover from COVID-19.”