It appears that women seem to be less likely to die from COVID-19 due to sex based immunological or gendered difference, however the effects on them may be greater overall.
Women will be more affected in places with more female health workers. One analysis of 104 countries showed that women form 67% of the health workforce. In Europe specifically, 53% of physicians are female and a staggering 84% of nurses. We are currently hearing that staff in hospitals feel they don’t have the protective equipment they need, so this in itself is having a direct impact on women.
School closures are likely to have more of an impact on women too, as they still bear much of the childcare responsibilities, and their participation in work outside the home is likely to fall. Women do three times more unpaid childcare than men, and this burden of care usually falling to women is not just in relation to children, due to school and nursery closures, but for extended family members that fall ill or are self-isolating due to underlying health conditions. Women are therefore putting themselves at higher risk of exposure, as well as sacrificing their time.
We also know that intimate partner violence and domestic abuse rises in the wake of emergencies. Self-isolation, along with the push for people to stay at home and travel restrictions are going to put more people who are in an abusive home at risk. The decrease in typical moments of rest bite that some women may experience when their abusive partners are away for work or socialising, are likely to heighten risk. Stress of any kind, including financial concerns, can act as a trigger for violence and coercion. Services in Leeds are aware of these issues and are dedicated in responding with continuing services in alternative ways such as online support and telephone contact where safe.
Other considerations for women are pregnancy and breastfeeding. We currently don’t know enough about what happens to babies born to women testing positive for COVID-19. How can they safely be breastfed? What is the best way to prevent mother to child transmission? Again, the subject of sharing the burden of childcare between family members is relevant. Often grandparents or other family members may take the baby for a walk, or for a few minutes to let the new mother catch up with sleep and recover. Without these moments of rest, mothers may be more likely to suffer from post-natal depression, and other mental health difficulties. Recovery may take longer and new mothers may feel ill effects of isolation. Online tools to support women become vital and there are groups currently in Leeds that recognise these issues and provide lifelines of support online. La Leche Leeds has a facebook group, many of the breastfeeding cafes, drop ins and centres are still providing support online and Mindwell Leeds has a page full of information for new mums.
Another relevant factor for women is being a single parent. Most single parents that do most of the parenting are women. The government is currently advising that children can travel between parents who are separated or divorced but this should be kept to a minimum. Added stress may fall upon parents when one becomes sick or has to move into isolation for whatever reason. Single parents may experience stress from being solely responsible for children over the days and weeks without breaks. Other government advice is for only one member of the household to go to the supermarket for essential provisions, but this may be impossible, and mothers may have no choice but to take their children with them, an environment they may feel anxious about due to increased exposure.
And alongside all of this, women’s needs are less likely to be met during a pandemic when they have fewer decision-making powers than men, and they may be in better positions to do this. If women’s socially prescribed care roles typically place them in positions where they can identify local trends providing them with knowledge that can improve global health security, then we need to empower them to provide their voice and knowledge. This could support outbreak preparedness and response. It has been said that there is inadequate women’s representation in global COVID-29 policy spaces, and we know that the impact of the pandemic will be felt for years to come, so its vital that women’s rights and needs are at the forefront of decision-making processes when designing the response.
The outbreak of COVID-19 should not perpetuate gender and health inequalities. It needs to be recognised that men and women may differ in their vulnerability to infection, exposure to pathogens and treatment received and this provides further need for the government and health institutions to consider the sex and gender effects of COVID-19 to inform policies and practices going forward.
Domestic Violence and Abuse:
• Leeds Domestic Violence Service: https://ldvs.uk/
• Leeds Womens Aid: https://leedswomensaid.co.uk/
• Behind Closed Doors: https://www.behind-closed-doors.org.uk/
Other victim support:
• Victim Support in relation to COVID-19: https://www.gov.uk/guidance/coronavirus-covid-19-victim-and-witness-services
Support for New Mothers:
• Mindwell Leeds: https://www.mindwell-leeds.org.uk/myself/feeling-unwell/i-am-pregnant-or-a-new-parent/i-am-a-new-mum-1/support-for-new-parents-in-leeds
• La Leche League Leeds facebook group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/187505144620755
• Breastfeeding Groups and support in Leeds: https://www.leeds.gov.uk/docs/Breastfeeding%20support%20groups.pdf
• Makin Dixon for guidance, freephone:0330 3031999