Staff Writer | Palladium - Apr 03 2020
COVID-19 Will Disproportionately Impact Women

Much has been said and written on the risks of COVID-19 faced by different age groups, with targeted precautions, policies, and advice available for older citizens deemed higher-risk. But much less has been done to reflect on the inherent disadvantage at which this pandemic puts women across the globe.

Once we understand that a full 70 percent of the global workforce in health and social sectors are women, we can begin to imagine the disproportionate impact COVID-19 will have on this group. While data suggests that men face a higher risk of mortality, the risk of exposure is most certainly higher for women, and according to Palladium’s Jay Gribble and Elisabeth Rottach in their blog on Science Speaks, so, too, is the potential for social and economic impact.

Gribble and Rottach, Palladium Senior Director and Senior Technical Advisor, respectively, share five key recommendations to address the crucial issue of pandemic gender equity.

1. Collect and analyse data

What gets measured gets done, and the collection of sex-disaggregated data is needed to understand the differentials in transmission, infection, and impacts.

Likewise, ongoing gender analysis can help to explain the context in which COVID-19 takes hold, including the different social roles of women and men in local settings. Understanding those roles can help decision makers to address social and cultural enablers and barriers to mitigate the pandemic’s impact.

2. Prioritise health services unique to women

Drawing on lessons from the Ebola and Zika outbreaks, pandemics expose the fragility of health systems globally, and can deprioritise services for women (such as antenatal care, reproductive health, and family planning) out of necessity.

For example, research found that more women died of obstetric complication in Liberia during the Ebola outbreak than actually died of Ebola. People will continue to have ongoing health needs during an outbreak, so it is critical that health systems be strengthened so that the public doesn’t face an ‘either/or’ situation. With stronger health systems, women can obtain care for their ongoing needs as well as issues related to the outbreak.

"More women died of obstetric complication during the Ebola outbreak than actually died of Ebola."

3. Bring women to the strategy table

More than a transactional approach to supporting women on the front lines, female voices are needed at the decision-making table. Data shows that women are vastly underrepresented in planning and strategy, with a rate of just 20 percent representation on the WHO Emergency Committee on COVID-19, and only 10 percent on the U.S. Coronavirus Task Force.

Women’s expertise and perspectives are critical to planning national and local responses. Taking a “one sex fits all” approach negates the many roles women play in the health system, in their communities, and in their families, whereas engaging both women and men fosters more inclusive leadership, and more effectively responds to all citizens’ needs.

4. Ensure access to protective gear 

Given the global health and social workforce is predominantly female, access to personal protective equipment (PPE) is a critical issue of equity.
Without PPE, women are exposed disproportionately to COVID-19, and will bring it to their families and communities, creating ripple effects that undermine recovery.

And while it may seem obvious, access alone to PPE isn’t enough. Men and women have different body types, and protective gear needs to be adjustable to fit people of all sizes and shapes.

5. Include gender-based violence considerations

Home is the most dangerous place for women according to the United Nations, and gender-based violence prevention and response protocols need to be adapted to COVID-19.

As countries encourage citizens to stay home, COVID-19 responses need to integrate gender-based violence risk-mitigation strategies to ensure women’s safety is not compromised.

COVID-19 is not the first pandemic our world has faced, and there are lessons to be learned from the outbreaks and disasters that have come before it. Considering and applying these lessons will help us to take an equitable approach to ensuring that the needs of all people, including vulnerable and marginalised groups, are met.