Respect Equality

Women and the hidden burden of the coronavirus

  • Experts say women are still “invisible” when it comes to global health.
  • In the U.S., just 10 percent of the representatives of the Coronavirus Task Force are women.
  • Women take on most of the world’s health care and are distinctly affected in global crises.

Stephanie Morgan can’t remember exactly when she knew something was wrong. But for the mother living in the epicenter of the U.S. coronavirus outbreak, the shift from working parent coordinating summer camps and enforcing screen time to staring at the next six weeks as a homeschool teacher for her three kids came suddenly. 

“I am used to having five or six hours a day to work and get stuff organized in our house and be ready to take back on that mom role after school’s over,” Morgan says. “And now it’s like having really young children again. They’re there all the time and it’s hard to meet everyone’s needs and feel very productive during your day.”

Morgan and her family live just less than 4 miles from the Washington state hospital with the most coronavirus deaths in the country, and about 6 miles from the eldercare center in Kirkland facing the brunt of the outbreak. At first, schools in her area closed for a day or two to prepare for online learning. Now, students won’t be able to return until late April, and many schools have canceled their online classes, leaving parents — especially mothers — to take on their children’s education and care. 

“There are a lot of women I know who kind of act as the point parent. So when something like this happens and kids are out of school, the extra work falls on their shoulders,” Morgan says. “I think those of us who are working from home are especially struggling with that duality because it’s really not possible. I’m trying to run homeschool lessons at the same time as working.”

Morgan is not alone — not even in the U.S. Right now, nearly 850 million children around the world are home from school as more than 100 countries are closing education institutions in an effort to stop the spread of the coronavirus. Whether in Italy or South Korea, women who provide the most care within their families may be feeling the brunt of this pandemic. Evidence suggests more men than women are dying of the coronavirus, but COVID-19 is also having specific ramifications on women.






Like in many global crises, women face a particularly distinct fallout from this outbreak, one that can range from burdensome at best to detrimental at worst. And while women provide the most health care around the world — whether it’s formally or informally — and are acutely affected by the pandemic, they are also largely left out of global health conversations. 

Lack of representation

“Global health has a huge imbalance,” says Sophie Harman, a professor of international politics with a specialization in global health politics at Queen Mary University of London. “Within institutions, women are invisible. But they are everywhere when it comes to delivering care.”

Around the world, women make up 70 percent of health care workers. In Shanghai, more than 90 percent of nurses and 50 percent of doctors who are combating the epidemic are women, according to a report highlighted by China Labour Bulletin, an NGO based in Hong Kong. In Hubei Province, ground zero of the outbreak, there are 100,000 women working as frontline medical staff. In the U.S., women hold 76 percent of all health care jobs

Women also take on the majority of child care, eldercare and domestic responsibilities that put them further in front of outbreaks such as these. In the U.S., for example, more than 25 million women — almost 1 in 7 — provide care to family members or friends, according to the National Partnership for Women and Families.

“Despite all the cultural differences and different rates of infection and maybe different patterns of infection, one thing that’s common around the world is that women are providing the majority of the care work either formally or informally,” says Julia Smith, a research associate at Simon Fraser University.

Yet, women are underrepresented in decision-making spheres, and the world’s coronavirus response agencies are no exception. The World Health Organization’s (WHO) Emergency Committee on COVID-19 is only 20 percent women. Likewise, the WHO-China joint mission on COVID-19 is only 16 percent women. Seema Verma and Deborah Brix have prominent roles in the U.S. Coronavirus Task Force, but only 10 percent of the representatives in the group are women. 

“Everyone in a collective way is feeling or will feel the impact of this pandemic,” says Erin Loos Cutraro, founder and CEO of She Should Run, a nonpartisan organization supporting women running for office. “It is at this very moment that we have to shine a light on what it means that women are not going to be in these rooms. You look at homecare workers, mostly women of color, mostly immigrants who are looking after our parents, who are looking after our children. Who’s going to be looking out for these women?” 

Economic impacts

Beyond the care economy, women also disproportionately hold jobs without protections like paid leave and in fields jeopardized by social-distancing and widespread shutdowns. Two-thirds of tipped restaurant workers in the U.S. are women, according to analysis by TIME Magazine. Sixty-five percent of workers in the restaurant industry do not have paid sick leave. and 77 percent have unpaid leave, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics

The Senate passed a coronavirus aid package Wednesday that would give up to 10 days of paid sick leave, but caps that measure off for companies with 500 employees. The parent company of Olive Garden and LongHorn Steakhouse, for example, is only offering its employees 40 hours of paid sick leave, according to The Washington Post

The hotel industry, where women make up more than half the workforce, has been hit harder by the coronavirus outbreak than the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the Great Recession combined, according to the American Hotel and Lodging Association. A dramatic drop in people staying at hotels recently could result in the loss of nearly 4 million jobs, from general managers to housekeepers, Axios reports. 

And even in the best of times, women are more likely to stay home and juggle work with home care. Four in 10 working mothers take time off and stay home when their children are sick, which is 10 times more than the share of men, according to a study published in 2014. Of these women, 60 percent are not paid for that time off. There are also five times as many single mothers as fathers in the U.S. 

“When it comes to crises like a pandemic, we feel that we have to respond to technical measures and somehow these are the most important,” Smith says. “And of course getting things like health care supplies and developing vaccines and getting public health information out, all of that is really important. But in order for that to be effective, we also need to consider the social dimensions of an outbreak and response and the secondary impact on people.” 

Increasing domestic violence

Domestic violence also tends to increase during national or global crises. In terms of the coronavirus outbreak, self-isolating and quarantining in an unsafe home can compound the issue. The number of domestic violence cases reported to police in Hubei Province, for instance, tripled in February compared to the same time last year, according to Axios

“If you have gender experts at the table when we’re talking about implementing quarantine measures, they would’ve flagged the issue of violence when you quarantine people in the home,” Harman says. “They would’ve just seen it as an issue. They would’ve said ‘okay where does most violence against women happen? It happens in the home. So if you keep people in the home, this is something that’s going to happen.’ And so it’s having them as part of that conversation.”

Harman emphasizes that it’s not just about having women at the table, it’s also important to include experts on gender issues specifically. 

“What it falls down to, I think, is that because you don’t have any gender experts in the planning or preparedness when you’re in the midst of an outbreak, the big response is this is a secondary issue,” Harman says. “So what we hear a lot with coronavirus: ‘What’s this got to do with anything? It affects everyone equally.’ This becomes secondary. So it’s about making gender right at the heart of it.”

‘Uncharted territory’

For Morgan, who oversees an online parenting community and blog, one of her main concerns right now is how to navigate this outbreak as both a teacher and a parent. She’s hearing similar worries from other families.

“They’re adjusting to this new way of life and they’re not quite sure what they’re going to do yet or how they’re going to handle it,” Morgan says. “A lot of people are worried about their kids being more worried than they’re showing. I think a lot of parents are concerned the kids are internalizing this.” 

The unprecedented nature of the coronavirus outbreak — everything from its global spread to the worldwide response and who’s most vulnerable — is leaving many to feel, as Cutraro puts it, as if this is “uncharted territory.” But, Cutraro says considering how men and women live in pandemics differently can change the world’s response to crises like this. 

It looks like a world where you have a much greater sense of trust and faith that the decisions being made are going to represent your interests,” Cutraro says. “As these decisions are made, we wouldn’t live in fear that our experiences as women are even being thought of.”