Women are hit hardest by impact of coronavirus

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The month of March, women’s history month is usually a time to celebrate the amazing accomplishments and successes of women but this year, it is perhaps more important to reflect on the disproportionate burden women are carrying given the reality of life during the COVID-19 pandemic.

More than 150 million Americans are under some sort of restricted activity and 3.2 million Americans have filed new unemployment claims. More than 2100 people have died. While it’s still hard to even fathom the scale and impact of this crisis, one thing is already apparent — women are suffering the most. As we battle this public health crisis now and rebuild our country afterward, the disproportionate toll every aspect of this pandemic has had on women must be addressed. And it needs to be addressed now.

Consider that the vast majority of those on the front lines of the COVID response in the U.S. are women — 76 percent of the health care workforce is female. A majority of the nurses, nurse practitioners, health aides and even a majority of doctors under the age of 45 are female. These everyday heroes are working tireless hours to save lives, while at the same time trying to protect their own health and the well-being of their families.

It’s not just women in health care who are bearing the brunt of this crisis. Think about this: women comprise the majority in most of the economic sectors hit hardest economically by the shut down of our economy. 40 percent of mothers in the U.S. are the primary breadwinners. They are the majority of service workers, two-thirds of America’s minimum wage workers, and they are more likely to be waitresses, cooks, hotel housekeepers now out of work.

Adding to the misery, 39 percent of small business owners are women — many living on the margins, now unsure whether they will even survive.

Compounding their economic struggles, women in the virus’s path also struggle disproportionately with the burdens of childcare and eldercare. Even under normal circumstances, working moms struggle with who’s going to watch the kids, and whether they can afford it. Now, working from home with kids out of school, possibly for the rest of the school year, and grandparents who are “social distancing” and can’t help. Or even worse, no paycheck coming in. That’s a nightmare.

Tellingly, this crisis has exacerbated the normal state of affairs for American women. Even their personal security is jeopardized more than usual. One in three American women has faced domestic violence. At a time when people are confined to their homes, and stress escalates, domestic violence is very likely to increase

Recognizing these gender-based struggles long before the pandemic, New York State already made significant strides with policies like a $15 minimum wage, paid family leave, guaranteed paid sick leave, equal pay, childcare funding, and tough laws on domestic violence.

More states should follow suit, especially given Congress has been unable to pass any of these protections on a national level. Even the two trillion dollar bailout package that passed Congress this week improves unemployment benefits and offers some emergency sick pay but does not do what New York has done — the coronavirus crisis has made it clear how critical it is to close social and economic gender gaps even when we’re not in a global pandemic. Now it’s critical. 

Using these tested policies as a template, the federal government should implement initiatives like these to better the lives of women and their families across this country. State and Federal governments need to have their backs, now more than ever. 

The toll this crisis will take on millions of women is vast and we can’t afford to let this national moment pass without embracing this opportunity to right some of the wrongs that have plagued women long before the coronavirus.

Lawmakers have a responsibility to consider women’s challenges, but it is also critical that women themselves speak up and speak out to their representatives from Town Halls to the halls of Congress. Posting on social media is not enough. Women must call and write their elected officials directly to ensure they truly understand the real challenges they are facing. Unfortunately, women have not historically engaged with their elected leaders the way men have. While women outvote men in elections and have in every major election since 1980, they are less likely to be engaged in political activism outside election cycles. We need to change that. 

We saw a rise in women running for office in 2018 because they wanted to create positive change. Both of us ran for local office in our careers because we wanted to make a difference in our communities. Let’s continue that trend this election year and always.

We cannot afford for women to stay on the sidelines now. The coronavirus crisis has amplified the need to create more pathways for women to elected office, higher-wage jobs, reduce the stress and cost of the childcare burden, and provide more opportunities to lift women out of poverty.

As women’s history month draws to a close, we need to recognize that women in this country are the tip of the spear. As we fight this pandemic, they are saving lives in hospitals, serving others in kitchens, and providing essential services. When this country helps women get ahead, we all get ahead. Women are fighting for us. We need to keep fighting for them.

Kathy Hochul is the 77th lieutenant governor of New York and chair of the Democratic Lieutenant Governors Association. She is chair of the New York State Women’s Suffrage Commission. Before serving as Lieutenant Governor, she represented New York’s 26th congressional district. Lauren Leader is co-founder and CEO of All In Together, a non-partisan women’s civic education organization. She is also and author and a frequent commentator on women’s issues in the media and is an elected Town Councilwoman in Harrison, N.Y.

Tags Coronavirus COVID-19

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