Women bearing the burden in the fight against Coronavirus

Women bearing the burden in the fight against Coronavirus

The novel Coronavirus and the disease caused by it, COVID-19, has spread across the world and caused infections in nearly every country. The virus, originally proclaimed by many as the great equaliser, has in fact thrown into stark relief the inequality entrenched in our society and across the world. While it is true that anyone can fall ill to this virus, there are many subsets of our society who are more at risk, including women. This risk can be both physical and economic.

Women in society are at the medical frontlines of the COVID pandemic. In the EU alone, 76% of healthcare workers are women. Additionally, as many as 82% of all cashiers – essential workers during global pandemics - are women. While in the home, women across the world tend to be the ones in the household who care for the sick and elderly. All of these roles put them more at risk of contracting the virus. 

Alongside that, a dangerous additional physical risk from the pandemic is a spike in domestic violence against women due to lockdown and the necessary responses put in place by governments to curb the virus. The stress and uncertainty of the economic impacts of the disease along with prolonged time spent in the home has led to an increase in calls to domestic violence support lines across Europe.

While we celebrate the doctors, nurses and healthcare professionals as they fight this pandemic, it is important not to ignore a whole subset of people also serving on the frontlines – our carers. These carers, people who work with the elderly or people with disabilities, are often under protected and chronically underpaid. Care work is historically one of the most underpaid in the EU and globally, a gap between care workers and workers in other sectors of anything between 4% and 40% of hourly wages. These care roles are predominantly held by women who find themselves without adequate compensation or protective equipment needed to keep themselves, their patients, and their families safe. Some women are being forced to choose between attending work, where they are undervalued and left unprotected from the virus, or leaving their jobs and seeking other work in a restricted employment market.

The current Coronavirus crisis is more than a medical one, it is an economic crisis as well. While women are on the frontline of the crisis in the medical field, they also are more likely to be involved in part-time or temporary employment. People in these types of unstable positions are at higher risk of being laid off or fired during an economic downturn, such as the one we are experiencing now. Additionally, the more female dominated sectors like retail and tourism are some of the worst affected by the pandemic and government measures to curb its spread. A recent study warned that as more women lose jobs, the gender pay gap (which stands at 16% in the EU and nearly 14% in Ireland) will widen.

Women are not only carrying the burden of the virus in the public sphere, but also in the home. Before the lockdown measures imposed by the Irish government to curb the spread of the virus, women did double the amount of unpaid and in home care work than their male counterparts. Since the start of this crisis, women have now taken on the additional role of teacher as schools have been closed for nearly 2 months. In the EU, the unpaid care burden is particularly difficult for single parents, 85% of whom are women, who are forced to juggle paid work, unpaid care work, and now supervising the education of their children. Women in the medical sector, whose jobs are designated as essential, are struggling to meet their care responsibilities at home. The Irish Times reported that thousands of healthcare workers have been unable to fully support the fight against COVID-19 because of child care responsibilities which kept them from attending work. These examples of women’s unpaid work burden increasing during the pandemic, clearly illustrates Oxfam’s belief that unpaid or underpaid care work of women and girls is the hidden engine which runs the world, propping up our economies and societies. Globally, women and girls put in 12.5 billion hours of unpaid care work a day, the monetary value of which is at least $10 trillion or triple the size of the tech industry.

In mid-April, Fiánna Fail and Fine Gael published their 10 Key Missions for a new government. In this manifesto the two parties pledged to acknowledge the importance of carers in our society. Oxfam’s Time to Care report lays out the recommendations for how governments can support their carers and contribute to a more gender just society. This support for carers is desperately needed, particularly in times of public health crisis. Additionally, the FF/FG mission document calls for a reform in the childcare sectors. A reform desperately needed, notwithstanding of the current crisis for parents in essential and teleworking employment.

The current pandemic has highlighted how the unfair burden left to women globally in the best of times, grows only heavier in times of crisis. It is only when the most vulnerable among us are safe, can we all be safe from Coronavirus. The women at the frontlines of the fight again COVID-19 in the hospitals, care homes, supermarkets, and living rooms are some of the most vulnerable to the impact of this virus and need support.

Read Oxfam’s Time to Care report and Oxfam Ireland’s submission to the Citizens Assembly on Gender Equality for more

Posted In: