Though COVID-19 started as a public health issue, in the past month it has transformed into an economic one as well. Lawmakers must act now to protect both the health and economic well-being of workers, especially women. Typical gender roles leave women at a disproportionate risk during this crisis, exasperating existing economic, medical and social gender gaps.
Women’s roles in the workforce place them at a greater risk of contracting the virus. According to the World Health Organization, women make up 67 percent of the world’s healthcare workforce in 104 countries, and in the United States, that number is 78 percent. Health care workers, especially nurses, nurse practitioners and medical assistants who are on the front lines of virus response, are highly exposed to the disease itself and in close proximity to other people. During the 2002 SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) epidemic, more than half of the cases worldwide were women and 21 percent were health care workers.
The high proportion of women in temporary and insecure positions also places them at a greater economic and medical disadvantage. Women are twice as likely as men to be employed part-time. In 2016, women made up 63.9 percent of the part-time workforce. Part-time workers are less likely to have employee benefits including paid family and sick leave and health insurance. These workers are also the first to be slashed during times of economic vulnerability, leaving many women without a steady income. The Families First Coronavirus Response Act passed on March 18 offers paid sick leave to these part-time workers, but offers unequal pay compensation and leaves out a majority of the workforce, including domestic workers.
Women who make up the majority of unpaid caregivers and domestic workers, including childcare workers, have no safety net. These workers are either unemployed or face infection because they often take care of families, the elderly and sick people. Pregnant women are another extremely vulnerable population right now. During the SARS outbreak, it was noted that pregnant women with SARS were more likely to miscarry. But with limited data on the transmission of SARS and coronavirus, there is uncertainty and anxiety in the air.
Staying home and quarantining is one of the most effective ways to stop the spread of the virus. Families, then, are left with the decision of how to divide the labor at home. Women in dual-income households who are “poor, working in service jobs that cannot be done from home” will often bear the bulk of childcare responsibilities and stay home.
The economic impact of the virus will hit women, a majority of service and part-time workers, harder. Julia Smith, a research associate at Simon Fraser University, said that the Ebola outbreak in West Africa greatly affected the economy but “men’s income returned to what they had made pre-outbreak faster than women’s income.” If there is anything to be learned from past epidemics like Ebola it’s that women will have a harder time bouncing back from this economic recession.
Since President Donald Trump declared coronavirus a national emergency on March 13, the U.S. has worked quickly to pass the paid sick leave bill (even though this exempted millions of workers). But had the U.S. been better prepared, we could already be focusing on an equitable, gender-based response. More cities should already have paid sick leave and health insurance benefits for employees. Domestic and service workers should have labor protections already. Lack of employee benefits and protections are all public health risks.
In a sense, women are at the center of this pandemic, yet do we really think our administration will address these gender-sensitive policy needs? Lawmakers cannot ignore gender needs anymore during this crisis. Instead, they should take it as an opportunity to challenge existing social dynamics and deeply entrenched gender roles.
Jenny Gurung can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.