It might be hard to remember a time before the Covid-19 pandemic, but we mustn’t get complacent with the way in which epidemics are gendered.
While epidemics impact virtually everyone, research shows that in any public health crisis, women are more impacted than men. Women are impacted on many levels, physically, mentally, economically and in terms of safety. They are at higher risk of catching the disease, have higher stress levels and are more likely to experience violence and are more economically vulnerable than men. However, these risks impact certain groups of women disproportionately where low-income women, women of colour, Black women, LGBTQIA+ women, or women with disabilities are most affected. For example, studies have shown that low-income women are less likely to seek medical assistance than high-income women, adversely impacting their access to medication and treatment.
Moreover, globally, about 70% of formal care workers (nurses, care workers, etc) are women, putting them at higher risk of potential infection. Studies have also shown that women health workers are more likely to develop depression, insomnia, or anxiety. Additionally, women not only make up the majority of the formal care sector, but also the informal care sector where women are more likely to stay at home and take care of sick family members, or homeschool children. Epidemics also represent an additional stress burden for women since they would be expected to take up more caregiving responsibilities, especially during a lockdown where families need to stay at home.
As if these risks and the stress related to them were not enough, all public health crises witnessed an increase in domestic violence, women unemployment, and child marriage for girls. This ‘shadow pandemic’ represents yet another way in which women are disproportionately affected by epidemics in different ways. Research has also shown that teenage pregnancy cases tend to rise during a public health crisis. As many services at reproductive health facilities might be reduced or taken away to meet the increased demand in other parts of the health sector, access to safe abortion and contraception are drastically limited. The overlooking of women’s reproductive rights, in general, has a dire effect on both the physical and mental health of women seeking these services.
While every situation is unique, a public health crisis such as an epidemic or pandemic puts the already vulnerable at greater risks, be it physically, mentally, short-term, or long-term. Be aware that these issues do not suddenly emerge during epidemics, they rather showcase already existing inequalities and disparities. In this way, any form of systemic discrimination deepens both during and after a public health crisis.