Opinion | Impact of covid-19 on women in developing nations will be harsher4 min read . Updated: 22 Apr 2020, 09:27 PM IST
- COVID-19 hits hard, it will hit the women harder in the resource constraint countries
- Women will suffer more due to covid-19 owing to many cultural and socio-economic factors
Covid-19 pandemic has brought a tsunami of collateral impacts on social, economic, cultural and public health systems. While pandemics and their impact are not completely alien to human knowledge, it seems the modern world was not very well prepared for this global-scale pandemic. As we learn by taking steps to manage and minimize its effects on the human population, it is important to consider the disproportionately greater burden that COVID-19 extends to women, calling for a fresh design to the gendered public health emergency response.
While the statistics are still emerging, a scan of the literature suggests that the fatality rate among women (1.7%) is lower than that of men (2.8%). However, there is a paucity of discussion to suggest how women can be more affected by the COVID-19 than men, specifically in low income and developing countries. In the resource constraint countries like India where women are culturally marginalized, the issue needs a more nuanced examination.
Let’s look at few important facts for a proper perspective. Globally, women dominate the health care workforce by contributing 67% of the total number of health workers. In South-East Asia region, 79% of the front-line health workers like nurses are women. If we draw upon the recent past experience of China and Italy, the health workers are most likely to be directly affected by the pandemic. While the risk of infection by the COVID-19 is higher among health workers, the stress of treating and managing the infection can traumatize the mental health of the front-line health workers.
Given the gaps in resources and support systems for the health care facilities in developing countries, the risk is elevated for health care workers. This will affect male health workers as well, but given the huge proportion of women in the front-line health workforce, the impact will be more on women.
In developing countries like India, women are the primary caregivers at the household level. With the mobility restrictions, educational institution closures the burden of household care is likely to be increasing on the women.
The burden of care and responsibility – of home staying children, extended family members, elderly – can make the situation more stressful for the women, even for those who do not work outside of the home. For those who do, working from home will imply lower productivity. Male involvement in the domestic activities has been a hard nut to crack despite many long going gendered and family welfare interventions.
It is very likely that there will be a policy level reorientation of priorities for the health sector. Past evidence has shown the health resources assigned for reproductive and women’s health flow toward the health emergency response. The recent national budget by the Indian government reduced the fund allocation for reproductive and child health from 20% to 7% of the total health budget. At the same time, relatively low prioritization of women’s health is not only limited to India as most of the low- and middle-income countries assign a lower tab. Further de-prioritization will hit the women’s health harder.
There is a likelihood of increased gender-based violence within the sphere of the household. Almost every third woman in India has experienced spousal violence. The household chores and caregiving capability of women are the most reported justification for wife-beating by the perpetrators. Mobility restrictions may increase the exposure time towards the perpetuation of violence against women. Evidence from the south and east Asian region shows that seasonal male out-migration is linked to the reduction in gender-based domestic violence.
While the government is shifting most resources to curb the COVID-19 spread, the factors such as economic slowdown, adversely impacted production and distribution system both at the rural and urban level have already started affecting the food and nutrition security in the countries like India. Lower availability of food and access to the market and other distribution system is going to affect women’s nutrition wellbeing more.
The intra household distribution of resources is always low for women in developing countries like India. When household resources are reduced, women are more likely to be left with very inadequate food and nutrition. The shutdown of the informal sectors, where women constitute a significant share of the workforce will lead to a reduction in access to income by women, leading to further marginalization.
Governments, therefore, have to take aggressive steps to mitigate the collateral damage of the COVID-19 that is going to hit the women harder. Among the expected policy-level decisions, is addressing the needs and safety of the female health workforces, especially the nurses engaged in front-line combat. There is a need to strengthen the community-based support systems for domestic violence survivors including phone-in support systems, sensitized police, neighborhood watch.
Attuning the safety net programs for more women’s needs would surely help too. The involvement of women in policymaking and implementation is necessary for a better understanding of women’s social, cultural and health issues. Targeted interventions to increase male involvement in the household caregiving system by deconstructing the age-old male gender norms would surely prove to be groundbreaking.
During the public health emergency of this scale, the safety of women’s well-being is vital for a better response to the pandemic itself.
Dr Shubh Swain works with Tata Cornell Institute, Cornell University, USA as the Assistant Director of TARINA and Gender and Nutrition specialist.