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COVID-19: Is it resurfacing the perils of being a woman or highlighting the feminine strength?

Authored by D. Saran Prakash, M.A. Disaster Management, Batch of 2017-2019, Jamsetji Tata School of Disaster Management (JTSDS), Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai


Sir Isaac Newton flourished during an outbreak of the Great Plague of London in the year 1665 (Sheth, 2020). For that matter, it was also William Shakespeare, who penned some of his best poems (Dickson, 2020) in a time when due to a major plague in London in the summer of 1606 all the theatres were closed. As cheerful as this sounds, when we recommend that this lockdown should be utilized to practice something creative, are we overlooking the obvious underlying inequalities that resurface in our society as the ongoing pandemic and the resultant lockdown are exercising differential impacts on men and women? 

Inside the doors As several people would hold the opinion that this is not the time to talk about anything that does not concern the immediate crisis, a recent commentary in a post of Lancet, and a Huffington Post shed light on why it is significant to consider also the gendered aspects of coronavirus pandemic. One of the most striking results from this pandemic that one can and should foresee is the possibility of sending us all back to square one, wherein women’s independence and struggles in the time of pandemic are silenced. 

This is not to suggest that coronavirus is a cause of gender-based violence. However, as unrelated to COVID-19 as it may appear, evidence already shows that one police station in China registered 162 reports of domestic violence in February 2020 (Ford, L., Harrison, E.G., Giuffrida, A., & Smith, H., 2020). This is an indicator that women’s vulnerability to such violence multiplies during emergencies. 

The understanding of this matter begins from reading into the escalated policies of work from home. While this move is the only way out of the pandemic which is currently in sight, it is to be recalled that people exercising domestic violence on women- a woman’s intimate partner or any other member of the family- resorts to isolating her from any interaction, in the first place. Understandably, the lockdown bringing quarantine and social distancing as a norm, is definitely also adding to the risk of women getting more exposed to violence at home, scarily. 

Further, with schools shutting down worldwide, the preconceived role of women being care-givers has multiplied the burden of keeping themselves on toes throughout a day. This shows how the concept of work-from-home executes differentially for women and men, specifically in those households wherein gender equality is still nowhere in sight. The Periodic Labour Force Survey (PLFS) of India, released by the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation in 2019 indicated that the only sector which has a large number of women receiving vocational training is work related to childcare, nutrition, pre-school, and crèches (Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation, 2020). With schools shutting down, the burden on this part of the workforce has begun to increase exponentially. 

All vulnerable sections of population experience the impacts of COVID-19 and the lockdown differently. With continuous rise in the number of COVID-19 cases in India, there is also a hovering risk of women’s sexual health taking a hit, if the required measures are not taken appropriately. In India, several states across the country have assigned the Accredited Social Health Activists (ASHA) and Aanganwadi workers the task of checking up on families for symptoms and hold advisory sessions to guide on precautionary measures against COVID-19 (Micro Plan for Containing Local Transmission of Coronavirus Disease (COVID- 19), 2020). However, according to the reports, associations of ASHA have approached the Central Government to provide adequate equipment to them, which they are currently lacking (Mishra, 2020). According to the United Nations Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA), the emergency response to COVID-19 also means that resources for sexual and reproductive health may be diverted to deal with the outbreak (Leone, 2020). In this context, given that, COVID-19 pandemic has placed India’s public health system under tremendous strain, the concern to be addressed here is that, is it possible that we are laying a breeding ground for spiking maternal mortality rate? 

In such a scenario, some of the pregnant women might also include those with existential respiratory illnesses, which should be treated with utmost priority. It is then needed that, backed up infection control measures must include proper segregation of suspected, possible and confirmed cases from antenatal care, neonatal and maternal health units. Surveillance and response systems for women of reproductive age and pregnant women should be in place, including in antenatal clinics, in order to avoid unwanted complication should an emergency need arise. There is currently no evidence to support vertical mother-to-child transmission of COVID- 19 (United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), 2020). However, preventive measures around this area of concern is recommended. 

When we discuss the perils surrounding the sexual and reproductive lives in the time of current pandemic, there is a take-away to keep in mind as a cue for improvement, from the Zika Virus outbreak (Schmidt, 2016). Differences in power between men and women meant that women did not have autonomy over their sexual and reproductive lives which was further complicated by their inadequate access to health care and insufficient financial resources to travel to hospitals for check-ups for their children, despite women doing most of the community vector control activities. 

Another point that we cannot afford missing out on is that, many households in India are run entirely by a single mother. As a society aiming for holistic approach in dealing with this crisis, it is recommended that rations and other relief measures for women-headed households and single mothers reach them in sufficient quantities which can ease the burden on them, as well as prevent panic buying from taking place. 

In this context, a contrasting irony that comes to our sight is narratives about exemplary women leaders from four countries where the whole pandemic situation is being managed by in an effective manner with the required level of decisiveness- Iceland headed by Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir, Taiwan headed by President Tsai Ing-wen, New Zealand headed by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, Finland headed by Prime Minister Sanna Marin and Denmark headed by Mette Frederiksen. Even if one is to say that these are small countries, let us also add in Germany served by Chancellor Angela Merkel. To highlight here, Germany’s deaths per million figures because of the novel coronavirus stands at 33, the lowest among the Big Four constituted by UK, France, Italy and Germany. For that matter, it also has the higher tests per million figures than these European nations- more than 15000 according to this. How are we to place this in the big picture of gendered perspective at understanding the pandemic crisis? 

History has held testimony to arguments pointing out women to be innately more compassionate than men with the values of empathy and compassion being the hiccups in the way of a strong leadership, apparently. Oh! What an unhelpful thought there. On the one hand where even today, some political organizations and companies are working to get women to behave more like men if they wish to succeed, on the other hand, the Prime Minister of Norway, Erna Solberg resorted to the idea of addressing the children of her country directly, via television, in order to respond to children’s questions from across the country (Osborne, 2020). How many more such examples do we need to acknowledge the strength- the actual something that women carry in themselves innately? 

Outside the doors Until now, we have elaborated on the risks surrounding women inside the four walls of the household. Generally considered as empowering, is the opportunity of working and formal employment outside the house still as benefitting for women in the ongoing crisis? 70 percent of the healthcare and social workers are constituted by women (United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), 2020). This means that, not only are women the first responders in the outbreak, they are also the ones in the front line of catching the disease. 

Some statistics for our clearer understanding: according to the 68th round of the National Sample Survey’s report on employment in India, estimates of health workforce shows that qualified female health workers constitute almost half of the qualified health workforce. Among different categories of health workers, qualified nurses and midwives were dominated by women at 88.9%. ASHA make up almost 1 million female community health workers, and Anganwadi workers comprise 1.4 million women. (Rao, Shahrawat, & Bhatnagar, 2016) For that matter, not only in India, but even in China, the scene remains somewhat similar. The data from the State Council Information Office in China suggests that more than 90% of health workers in Hubei province are women (Wenham, C., Smith, J. , & Morgan, R., 2020). 

However, history has witnessed that, despite women’s active and leading role in various settings in a disaster, women have been less likely than men to hold power in decision making. 

“When 85% diplomats are men, there is an issue.” - Professor Karin Aggestam

The situation right now is a parallel to the above-mentioned quote. Even during the 2014-16 West African outbreak of Ebola virus diseases, gendered norms meant that, women were at a higher risk of catching the infection, given their pre-dominant role as caregivers within families and as front-line healthcare providers. 

The aim of bringing to light all the facts and figures aforementioned, is to point out that incorporating women’s voices and knowledge in various settings of disaster response, particularly right now, could be nothing but empowering for them, and improving for further preparedness and response as the danger still lurks and the battle continues. 

And somewhere between the indoors and the outdoors lies a place undefined where, young girls- children, literally- are not left out from the graveness even during times like these under a complete lockdown. This comes from the harshly unfortunate incident of rape of an 7-year-old in Damoh, Madhya Pradesh, on 22 April 2020. To note here is the disheartening concern that this is the third rape case in the state of Madhya Pradesh since the nation-wide lockdown was instituted. 

Relevance of this discussion Why is this being reiterated here, while all this is already known and understood? The fact of the matter is that, despite the Executive Board of the WHO recognizing the need to include women in decision making for outbreak preparedness and response, the representation of women in national and global COVID-19 policy platforms remains inadequate. For example, in the USA, when President Donald Trump announced the constitution of the White House Coronavirus Task Force (Ralph, 2020), there were no women in it. Further, the WHO-China joint mission on COVID-19 has only 3 women members out of a total of 25 members. Coming to India, the COVID-19 Economic Response Task Force, though headed by the Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, a woman herself, there are only 2 women members, out of the total 21 members for Public Health Experts on COVID-19 constituted by the Indian Council for Medical Research (ICMR). 

Analysing the various discourses and decisions pertaining to COVID-19 pandemic, the ongoing lockdown, and the potential aftermaths unveil to us how gendered the mainstream approach to this crisis is, yet again. The point that all of us need to comprehend is that, all this is not only a matter of equality. From a larger perspective, it is also about increasing the efficiency of the public policies by mainstreaming a gender-sensitive approach which can yield more rigorous and transparent data. 

Factually, 20 years ago the UN Security Council passed the landmark Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security. However, gender analysis still remains omitted from preparedness and response to humanitarian challenges. 

As we identify gender related blind spots in our approach to dealing with the pandemic, in another very troubled part of the world- Italy- a comic book illustrator Milo Manara, had portrayed heroes in the pandemic fight. The portrayal shows a lone nurse boldly placing herself in the way of towering, eerily familiar rendering of the coronavirus- titled- It’s You Against Me Now- (among a few more such illustrations), probably taking inspiration from artist’s own niece, who is a nurse. 

Women in disasters has been a much debated cross-cutting theme of concern since a long time, especially in the discipline of Disaster Management. Currently, it appears ironically true that the novel coronavirus disease has become a breeding site for gender inequality that is threatening to relegate women to their gendered roles as caregivers. What is also true is the fact that there are several men too out here, who agree and support the need of women’s substantial and active inclusion in several measures against the current situation. Whether this pandemic will ultimately set us all decades back on gender equality, or it will uplift us more to a society which is welcoming and appreciating of different types of contributions made by different actors- is but up to us, collectively. 

Recommendations- the way forward

Having at least listed a few of the concerns in this era of grave challenge, from a gendered perspective, what we need to adopt and execute is a forward-looking approach to address and rectify as many ills as possible, on the other end of the lockdown. 

On 18 April 2020, a bench of Justices JR Midha and Jyoti Singh of the Delhi High Court directed that a decision be taken in three days and steps required to protect victims of domestic abuse be immediately implemented. However, the situation to be understood here is that, under the lockdown, when people cannot venture out for anything other than emergency jobs to be done, it is even more difficult for women to even reach till the police to file complaint and seek help. In this regard then, the measures need to be deeper and more outreaching. 

In France, a creative workaround has been reported to have been in practice. This initiative encourages people experiencing abuse to say codeword ‘mask19’ to a pharmacist at a drugstore to get help. And in the UK, the Silent Solution system allows victims to alert police without saying anything but just by dialling 999 operators and then press 55. The aforementioned ways come across as two effective and efficient methods of creating a space for those who are rather enduring this lockdown. 

Another recommendation that can be considered as an immediate step towards monitoring the reduction in cases of domestic violence is taking the help of ASHA workers, who, as mentioned in this text before, have been assigned the task of community outreach for awareness generation regarding precautionary measures to be taken. Since AHSA workers have wider spread and closer access for the purpose of surveys to identify symptoms of virus in the community, identifying signs of domestic violence too can be considered as part of these surveys. 

With regard to the overburden of work on employed women who are working from home, it requires an immediate comprehension by us all at an individual level that doing a few dishes or taking care of the child for a day by the man in particular (and other members of the family) only makes him an equal stakeholder of responsibilities that have to be but shared to ensure well-being of everyone in the family. 

All these measures, as we already begin streamlining during lockdown, will assist in post-lockdown period to fast track the remedial measures to be taken, wherever necessary. Not only this, but these measures, along with identifying more such ways, have be streamlined into regular practice too, in order to pull the age-old diseases rooted in our society. 

Concluding thoughts...

As the entire world is reeling from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, notwithstanding the several challenges that women in India (in the focus of this text) are facing right now, there are also those women who are leaving no stone unturned to tackle this challenge. Yet again, it is women (in India) who are leading the smooth functioning of key departments right now. These inspirational women include Preeti Sudan, secretary at the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, Beela Rajesh, health secretary of Tamil Nadu, Dr. Priya Abraham, director of National Institute of Virology, Pune, Dr. Nivedita Gupta, senior scientist at ICMR, and Dr. Renu Swarup, secretary, Department of Biotechnology (Chandna, 2020). 

Further, to cite yet another example of such a flag bearer of strength and innovation: Sunidhi Dayam, a female PhD student working under the guidance of Dr. Kaushal A. Desai in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, IIT Jodhpur, has come up with a face shield design using the scrap material available at home. 

In times when hand sanitizers are exercising a major role in ensuring our safety, we must not forget that the person to have invented this weapon in the year 1966 was a woman named Lupe Hernandez (Ramesh, 2020). 

The examples of all these women warriors and gems must motivate us all to not only appreciate their efforts and acknowledge their skills, which are at par with men, but also to actively put a lockdown on the avoidable discomforts and atrocities on women, in this crisis, and make homes and all other spaces, truly safe for them. 



Karin Aggestam is Professor of Political Science and holds the Samuel Pufendorf Endowed Chair (Ragnar and Torsten Söderbergs' Foundations). She is also Honorary Professor at University of Queensland and Adjunct Professor at Monash University, Australia. 

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