10 April 2020
Bearing the burden: women and COVID-19

Bearing the burden: women and COVID-19

There is no denying that COVID-19 is affecting populations in their entirety, throughout Europe and across the globe. Although in purely numerical terms, men seem to be affected more from this virus, these are just the direct victims of the illness. What happens when we talk about the healthy population? Who is carrying the weight of this crisis?

We should take several aspects into account when discussing the impact of this pandemic. One of them is the most obvious: the health impact of COVID-19, its victims, our preparedness to face the virus, the incredible work that public health services are carrying out across Europe, access to such services, as well as solidarity amongst countries in the European Union. It is followed closely by the much-feared economic impact, especially on those countries most affected by the virus. The PES Group has joined its voice to that of those calling for the next EU budget to turn into a new “Marshall Plan” to fuel Europe’s recovery from the coronavirus crisis. The social aspects of the virus, translating into the immediate loss of income and the spectre of unemployment are also extensively discussed by policy makers and widely reflected on the media. However, one aspect not sufficiently addressed is the gendered aspect of this pandemic. As Zita Gurmai, PES Women President,  put it, “COVID-19 is a threat to all of us, but it also exacerbates existing gender inequalities.”

The first field where we see a gendered impact is that of labour and the workforce.  Women tend to hold the majority of part-time and precarious jobs, and might risk losing them during this crisis, as well as not being able to find new ones once the pandemic is over. Due to the closure of schools and because they earn less than men, women might face a larger pressure to leave their jobs to take care of the family. As job security is lower in the case of women, because of the prevalence of the types of employment mentioned earlier, they are more likely to bear the brunt of the financial consequences of this crisis.

Although statistically speaking, women appear to be les affected by this virus than men, this does not mean that they are less exposed to it. A 2019 report by the World Health Organisation determined that around 70% of the health professionals in over 100 countries are women. Moreover, according to a statement released by the European Women’s Lobby, jobs that are still deemed essential (such as retailers) are typically held by women. This means that these workers are constantly exposed to the virus while enduring the consequences of the gender pay gap and having to cope with the so-called “second shift” phenomenon, that is, carrying out the majority (or all) of the housework, which is of course unpaid work.

As explained in an article by the Atlantic, the “second shift” phenomenon gets aggravated for women, who do not only look after their children but are also in charge of their home-schooling. Moreover, if a member of the family falls ill, the task of taking care of them usually falls on women. This means that women are at a higher risk of exposure to the virus.

The weight of that “second shift” on women has also become evident in those cases where women remain the primary ‘breadwinners’ during the crisis. In the case of a lot of heterosexual couples, their partners find themselves in a situation unknown to them, often unable to cope with the domestic tasks usually carried out by their female partners.

Finally, as if those elements were not enough to highlight women’s disadvantaged situation when it comes to the consequences of this crisis, domestic violence has become a recurrent phenomenon, exacerbated by the lockdown measures that governments have imposed across the world. Countries such as Belgium, France or Spain have seen a dramatic increase in calls to the phone numbers habilitated for survivors of domestic violence in the first weeks of lockdown.

Besides the already-existent helplines for survivors of domestic violence, there have been other measures put in place to protect them. Examples of this are Germany looking for empty buildings to use as shelters for survivors or Spain allowing any woman who is being subjected to these attacks to be able to go outside the house to seek help and not be sanctioned. Spain has also set up two phone numbers for immediate psychological assistance through WhatsApp and some regions in the country have also started a campaign in pharmacies where women can ask for help by asking for a Mascarilla-19 (Mask-19).

Every day we are seeing how social distancing and isolation, measures that are rightfully meant to protect people, end up putting survivors of domestic violence at risk. This is why we need to find a European-wide way of tackling the issue. Commissioner for Equality, Helena Dalli, already appealed to Member States to approach the crisis from a gender-sensitive angle, a call joined also by PES Women, who have urged  for a more targeted approach both for addressing the pandemic and preparing the recovery.

UN Women had already published a series of recommendations on dealing with the COVID-19 crisis from a gendered perspective. Overcoming it should follow the same mechanism and there should be specific measures that promote gender equality.

Progressive local and regional authorities remain key in addressing the consequences of the coronavirus on women by remaining vigilant to the multiple violations of women’s rights and putting in place appropriate structures to advise and protect women victims. The PES Group remains convinced that this should be a key priority because it is the politicians closer to the citizens who can best address their problems in the first place.

At the same time, European action is needed,  providing solutions for all the women that have born the brunt of this pandemic. The recently adopted European Commission’s Gender Equality Strategy states that it will place gender at the core of all the EU policies; now is the best time to  put its money where its mouth is!

For further reading on the position of our political family on this subject, click here.


Photo by engin akyurt on Unsplash