The crisis associated with the Covid19 pandemic has a gender, and clearly shows social inequalities of all kinds. It particularly affects women, as well as disadvantaged and variously marginalised groups. There are also attempts to exploit the pandemic for short-term political goals directly targeting women's rights.
The crisis can be compared to a magnifying glass: it clearly shows the inequalities and ruts that entire social groups sometimes get caught in: women, people with disabilities, employees working on short-term contracts or the grey market, refugees. Today it is still difficult to assess what the long-term effects of the Covid19 pandemic will be, but preliminary data show that although anyone can get sick, it is by no means the “great leveller”, and the costs are already mainly being borne by the disadvantaged and the marginalised. Based on information about those infected in New York, American epidemiologist Justin Feldman shows that hospital admission rates are higher in poorer districts than in white middle-class districts. He points to two main reasons for this: the crowded apartments and poorer general health of these districts’ residents, and above all the greater numbers of people suffering from diabetes or cardiovascular disease.
One important determinant of differences in the impact of a pandemic is gender. Simply put, crises have a gender, both those caused by natural disasters and those resulting from human disregard or pursuit of profit. Robert Blanton, Shannon Blanton and Dursun Peksen have studied how various types of financial crises (in banking, or those associated with runaway inflation or debt) in 1980–2010 affected the situation of women in 68 countries around the world. Based on the available data, they analysed issues of health and education as well as women's participation in politics and the labour market. Their study, published in 2019 by Cambridge University Press, shows that women bear the costs of crises to a greater extent than men in terms of political participation, level of employment, educational achievement and health, and this effect outlasts the crisis by up to seven years. Similar effects are to be expected for Covid19: men are more likely to be hospitalised, and die more often from the disease, while women are burdened with more of the pandemic’s economic, social and political consequences. The fact that the effects of the pandemic are unevenly distributed among various social groups is recognised both by international organisations (e.g. the UN) and by the scientific community, but thus far the responses by governments have been minor. It is therefore all the more important to publicise the problem.
Women are losing out as employees in the pandemic, and both cultural and structural factors are contributing to this. The studies by Blanton, Blanton and Peksen (2019) confirm the otherwise well-known principle that in times of crisis women are the first to be dismissed and the last to be hired: many employers believe that women's earnings merely supplement the household budget, the bulk of which is for the man to bring home, while they are also considered a vital part of the social safety net in the private sphere, so all the better that they stay at home and care for the children and the sick. This is reflected in women’s participation in the labour market: in Poland, fewer than half of women are professionally active, i.e. working or seeking employment, and among the most frequently mentioned reasons is the need to care for dependents.
The structure of employment also determines that women are more likely to end up unemployed: women represent a huge majority in the industries hardest hit by the pandemic. According to 2017 data from Statistics Poland, those working in the accommodation and catering industry, i.e. hotels, restaurants and bars, comprised nearly 70% women, and similarly in the broader services industry, while in culture, entertainment and recreation women accounted for around 60% of all employees. There are also specific professions in which women make up almost 100%, such as beauticians or seamstresses. Data collected by the Clean Clothes Campaign indicate that in countries where millions of women are employed in sewing rooms there have already been massive layoffs: in Bangladesh, as many as six million people may have lost their jobs in the clothing industry. Most are not protected by labour laws because of the prevalence of short-term contracts (in Poland) or work without a contract (especially in Bangladesh or Cambodia). Preliminary analyses by the campaign show that seamstresses in Poland are also being affected by the crisis and many had problems exacting payments for March.
The situation can only be expected to worsen with time. Employees who keep their jobs can often be overworked, and for little money. Women today are on the front line of the fight against Covid19 – in healthcare and social assistance over 80% of employees are women, as in education. It is no accident that media reports from nursing homes where exhausted staff are trying to ensure continuity of care, despite a lack of protective measures and help, usually show women. Virtually everywhere in the world, occupations involved in caring for the sick, the elderly or children are poorly paid, low-prestige and dominated by women. This is no coincidence. Rather, we have a vicious circle: women are considered “naturally predestined” to care for others, so they are often encouraged to assume such jobs. At the same time, care is valued far less than the work of architects or IT specialists. Nurses and carers are poorly paid, while it is often said that they should mainly be motivated by the desire to help the needy: it is no coincidence that female medical staff were until recently called “sister”, and today in discussing the insufficient number of nurses in hospitals, politicians are eager to emphasise that this profession is a vocation and a service.
From an international perspective, you can see that the worst situation today is that of female migrants, especially those working in care professions or factories, without health insurance and unable to return to their countries of origin. According to Dr Wen Liu, a researcher at State University in New York, Taiwan today has about 50,000 such workers from Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam who are invisible to the system and vulnerable to exploitation and violence. Many Ukrainian women are in a similar situation in Poland, working illegally as domestic help, round-the-clock nurses or childminders. Although data from the Office for Foreigners show that 125,000 people from Ukraine submitted residence applications in 2017, the real figure is known to be much larger.
The long-term effects of a pandemic, in particular the effects of shutting entire families at home for a prolonged period, can only be evaluated using data covering several months. However, we are already seeing that the pandemic is resulting in an increase in cases of violence against women and children, and probably also against the elderly. Speaking to Gazeta Wyborcza, a representative of the women's rights centre Centrum Praw Kobiet, Joanna Gzyra-Iskandar, estimated that since the beginning of the epidemic, the foundation’s employees had received fifty percent more reports of violence than usual. Of a similar opinion is psychologist Ewa Foks, coordinator of the Blue Line telephone clinic of the Institute of Health Psychology (Instytut Psychologii Zdrowia), who is receiving calls from double the usual number of people, and many are also calling in the night or early morning, suggesting that some may not be able to contact support organisations.
Data on reported cases of violence in other countries are also showing a clear upward trend. In epidemic-hit parts of China, the increase was of as much as 300%, while in Spain there were 20% more reports to the police, and in Italy the organisation D.i.RE recorded an increase of 74%. In the UK, meanwhile, between March 26 and April 1, Women’s Aid saw an increase of over 40% over the previous week in the number of people using the Live Chat service for victims of violence. The pandemic, and particularly the efforts by governments to reduce infections, translates into victims being isolated from those who could help them, condemning them to “house arrest” in the company of their torturers. This applies primarily to women and children, although in some cases men also need help; nor do we have data on the situation of the elderly, who are further cut off from their surroundings by a lack of access to the Internet and by poor health.
Healthcare and reproductive health
Pandemics, like other crises, negatively affect women's health for several reasons. First, the economic crisis is resulting in cuts to healthcare spending in those areas not directly related to the fight against the coronavirus. Secondly, as Blanton, Blanton and Peksen (2019) indicate, in hard times, families too have a tendency to “save” on women's needs, such as gynaecological care, which is taken to be non-essential. Thirdly, ultra-conservative groups are trying to reduce the availability of services they consider “immoral”, such as abortion or contraception.
Representatives of ultra-conservative organisations and religious fundamentalists view the pandemic as a great opportunity to fight women's rights and equality. Some, like Archbishop Stanisław Depo, would persuade Polish women and men that “coronavirus is just one of the threats, and not the most important, alongside wars and gender ideology”. Others are focusing on trying to change the law. Following the outbreak of the pandemic in the US, republican governors in Indiana, Iowa, Mississippi, Ohio, Oklahoma and Texas introduced drastic restrictions on access to abortion under the pretence that it would allow for a more effective fight against the virus. Despite protests, abortion was determined to be – like plastic surgery – a “non-essential medical procedure” that can be dropped in order to save resources needed during the health crisis.
In Poland, two important civic projects came to the attention of the Sejm: one – “Stop abortion” – would result in a further drastic tightening of the ban on abortion, de-legalising the termination of a pregnancy in cases where the foetus is seriously and permanently damaged. The second project – “Stop paedophilia” – would in practice ban sex education in schools and educational establishments, on pain of three months to five years in prison. Neither law was rejected, although none of these ideas have public support in Poland: in successive surveys, a few to a dozen or so percent of those polled support the tightening of existing abortion regulations, and the vast majority would like sex education in schools. Both were sent to committees for further work and may return to parliament in the near future.
The political representation of women and civil society
One might think that the crisis should open up new opportunities for women in politics. The vision of women as caring and empathic could lead voters to trust them over men, who are often perceived in politics as aggressive and career-focused. However, the available data do not support this thesis. There are countries where the crisis of 2008–09 brought women to power (e.g. Lithuania), but they are more the exception than the rule. The need for security and the conviction that hard times call for a decisive “tough” leader favour men. This conclusion is confirmed by an analysis of the political situation in 68 countries around the world: it turns out that the crisis is negatively affecting the number of women in parliament, which the authors explain both by lower numbers of women running in elections and reduced demand for female leadership in difficult times (Blanton, Blanton and Dursun Peksen 2019). This means that during a pandemic, women in politics have less to say and are little able to fight for the state to focus on combating gender inequalities.
The problem is also shrinking the field of operations for non-governmental organisations and social movements, except for those focusing on support activities: collecting money for protection measures, buying medical equipment or supporting the healthcare system. Firstly, the public debate is limited to virus-related issues, which are drawing the focus of both the media and the public. Secondly, many organisations, especially smaller ones that face staffing and financial deficits on a daily basis, are being forced to suspend their activities because they are unable to ensure continuity of operation without state support. Thirdly, the potential for protest and joint grassroots action is being drastically limited. One example is the protests against the aforementioned abortion and sex education bills. Polish Women's Strike (Ogólnopolski Strajk Kobiet) in cooperation with organisations such as Democracy Action (Akcja Demokracja) and the Federation for Women and Family Planning (Federacja na Rzecz Kobiet i Planowania Rodziny) mobilised millions of Poles to take action. Car protests were held in Warsaw and other cities, hundreds of people stood in queues in front of shops carrying slogans and symbols of protest, e.g. black umbrellas, and nearly 3,000,000 sent letters to members of parliament through Democracy Action. However, in many places queue and car protests were made difficult or impossible by the police, and many participants were fined. Although no state of emergency has been introduced in Poland, the level of surveillance of citizens and the scale of police intervention have clearly increased – although these phenomena are being explained by the need to fight the virus, in practice civil rights are being limited and, moreover, in an uncontrolled manner and for an unlimited period. As indicated by Panoptykon Foundation president Katarzyna Szymielewicz, we are threatened today by both unrestricted state power and the monopoly of global corporations such as Facebook, which are becoming the main platform for communication and social mobilisation. It may turn out that the worst impact on society will be not so much the virus itself as actions theoretically intended to fight it.
- Blanton, Robert, Shannon Blanton, and Dursun Peksen. 2019. “The Gendered Consequences of Financial Crises: A Cross-National Analysis.” Politics & Gender 15 (4): 941–70.
- Wenham, Clare, Julia Smith, and Rosemary Morgan. 2020. “COVID-19: The Gendered Impacts of the Outbreak.” The Lancet 395 (10227): 846–48.
- “COVID-19: Stopping the Rise in Domestic Violence during Lockdown | News | European Parliament.” 2020.
The views and conclusions contained in the text express the author's opinions and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Heinrich Böll Foundation.