As the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus continues to spread across the globe, prevention measures are causing disruptions at work, school, and at home, it's important to look at how the outbreak will affect women.
We invited Dr Karen Grepin from the School of Public Health, and one of the authors of the comment “COVID-19: the gendered impacts of the outbreak” in The Lancet, to provide us answers to how outbreaks can affect women, health workers, and what can be done to ensure better gender equity.
These measures that we are putting into place globally to slow the spread of COVID-19 are important, however, they are disrupting daily life for everyone - men, women, and children. However, evidence from previous outbreaks suggests that women will be disproportionately negatively affected by the outbreak. There are many examples, women provide the majority of services in health care systems, so they will be called upon to assist in the outbreak. School closures will also disproportionately affect women who provide the majority of informal care to children and thus will be affected.
Women who are both mothers and health workers will be doubly affected. School closures also affected children in West Africa after schools closed for the Ebola outbreak there, female children were less likely to return to school than their male counterparts and suffered disproportionately there (1).
Here in Hong Kong, hundreds of thousands of women work here from overseas as domestic workers. Many of them have lost jobs and are unable to return home due to travel bans.
70% of the workers in the health and social sectors globally are women (2). In China, more than 90% of health-care workers in Hubei are women. With health workforce being predominantly female, it is important to recognize that women incur significant risks during outbreaks.
In the context of Ebola, we also know that the sexual and reproductive needs of young and pregnant women were disproportionately affected during outbreak due to the fear of blood as a risk factor for the transmission of Ebola Virus Diseases. We don’t know how this will play out yet with regards to COVID-19, but it is clear that it is something that needs to be monitored.
Women need to have a seat at the table in discussions about how to respond to the outbreak. Women are currently under-represented in leadership positions in many global health and development agencies.
Whatever task forces are organized at county levels to deal with the outbreak should include the voices of women as much as possible in order to try to mitigate the impact of these response measures on these women.
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