Assistant Professor Rachel Brulé, Global Development Policy at Boston University, says that COVID exposed existing inequalities and explains why gender inclusive institutions can help
COVID-19 is tearing gaping holes through the human fabric of our world. Yet the losses we experience, individually and collectively, are not random. Recent research has identified how COVID-19 exacerbates the marginalisation of already oppressed groups, in line with the effect of prior pandemics.
How does the virus relate to gender inequality?
Indeed, the impacts of COVID-19 are blindingly clear for gender inequality. Globally, women comprise over 70% of healthcare workers – and even more in COVID-19 epicenters (90% in China’s Hubei Province and 78% in the US), according to UN estimates. In the world’s largest democracy, India, the face of frontline health workers is almost exclusively female, and plans for mass vaccination rely on women. Yet, women are less likely than men to have access to formal wages, wealth, healthcare, and, as health workers have less effective personal protective equipment (PPE). The policy-making process is similarly biased: according to the UNDP and UN Women’s COVID-19 Global Gender Response Tracker, men outnumber women by a factor of three to one in 225 state-led COVID-19 taskforces. Women are entirely absent from the COVID-19 taskforces of 26 states.
The situation in India
Consider the case of the world’s largest democracy, India. There, the face of frontline public health workers is almost exclusively female: including one million ASHAs (accredited social health activists), 2.5 million anganwadi workers and helpers providing childcare in rural and suburban centers, and over 200,000 auxiliary nurses and midwives. Inadequate pay, healthcare, and PPE for these female “volunteers” have led to widespread protests or bandhs such as a 600,000-woman protest by ASHA workers demanding minimum wages, PPE and health insurance for their families as the pandemic accelerated in August 2020.
As women continue to specialise in the care of others, states, communities and families have responded to the pandemic by increasing their reliance on women’s willingness to provide care – the preeminent “unpriced public good”– with little-to-no pay. Pre-pandemic, women performed at least three times as much care work as men, according to the International Labour Organization. As COVID-19 lockdowns shuttered many schools, demands on mothers to care for children have mounted. UNICEF estimates that over 168 million children globally experienced closed schools for nearly a year due to pandemic restrictions. Another 214 million children have missed more than three-quarters of in-person learning for the same reason. The impact on women’s labour has been devastating: Canadian mothers, for example, have shouldered the equivalent of a second job (an additional 50 hours per week) to care for children.
Women now account for 54% of job losses
Thus, we see women leaving the workforce in disproportionately high numbers at the very moment when women’s work serves a vital function for our survival. McKinsey estimates women’s jobs are 1.8 times more vulnerable to the global pandemic than men’s jobs: women make up 39% of global employment but account for 54% of total job losses. This is deemed a direct response to the increasing burden of childcare as schools and daycare centers shut down. As social protection systems weaken, UN women estimates the pandemic will push 47 million women and girls into extreme poverty. While some studies predict that gender norms may shift as men increase their engagement by working from home, there is a clear cost of our failure to build institutional support for “care” that has locked many women out of the labour force during the pandemic, amounting to a loss of $64 billion in the US and up to $13 trillion in potential global GDP by 2030.
Gendered economic losses have severe political consequences. In my recent book on India, Women, Power, and Property, I find that where women gain fundamental economic resources – property rights – they are more likely to participate in local politics. This participation is crucial to advancing women’s bargaining power within households and their political careers as elected representatives. Where women have secure access to wealth guaranteed by social entitlements, Nikhar Gaikwad and I find the gender gap in political participation that typically disadvantages women reverses. Other researchers have found similar, positive impacts of wealth – in particular, labour market opportunities – on women’s political participation across advanced industrial democracies. Given the roll back of women’s wealth and labour force participation during the pandemic, we should expect barriers to their political participation to grow. This would be deeply consequential, given women’s differential commitment globally to the vital work of repairing the state’s ability to support citizen welfare.
What can we do?
Alongside making healthcare coverage universal, governments should make access to childcare and education universal and safe for all concerned. To do so, governments should make substantial investments to guarantee and improve the pay, job security, and benefits of daycare providers and teachers at all levels; upgrade the physical infrastructure of schools so they are safe to attend; direct significant additional learning, career, and financial resources to the most vulnerable students and families; and provide significant investments in our mental health infrastructure to support necessary healing of individuals, families, and communities during this collective trauma. These investments are costly, but their price pales in comparison to what they will enable us to achieve.
Now is the time to tackle inequality head on, for a resilient future where we not only survive, but expand our capacity to flourish.
Rachel Brulé is an Assistant Professor of Global Development Policy at the Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University and Core Faculty of the Boston University Global Development Policy Center’s Human Capital Initiative.