We are exposing women to COVID-19. We are killing women as they are trying to save us.
— Dr. Michelle Meggs
What are the gendered implications of COVID-19 for women doing the work that keeps many of us alive? At the front lines of this pandemic, women are overburdened, an unseen labor force that keeps the country running and takes care of those most in need whether or not there is a pandemic. These women are underpaid and undervalued, they are the essential workers, and they are more at-risk for intimate partner violence and sexual exploitation. And the most striking implication is that we are exposing women to COVID-19, in some cases killing them, even as they are trying to save us.
Gender-Based Inequities Exposed by COVID-19
Women are constantly in danger but COVID-19 increases the risk to their lives from multiple avenues: Employment and an unraveling social safety net, intimate partner violence, and sexual exploitation. Every time we go out to get what we feel are our essential needs, we are visiting the violence of sickness that COVID-19 imposes on women’s bodies. For example, many “essential workers” rely on public transportation, where social distancing is nearly impossible, and many have more than one job. Their front line positions means that they have a higher likelihood of being exposed to the virus, thus placing themselves, their families, and their communities in jeopardy. While we are picking up our morning lattes or meals from the drive-thru, each transaction presents the opportunity for these workers to come in contact with someone infected with the virus. So what does this mean for women in Mecklenburg County?
Mecklenburg County Public Health reports that women are 54.9% of COVID-19 positive cases reported and 40% of deaths. But the risk among women is great. As Robertson and Gebeloff note in a recent New York Times article,. “Women make up nearly nine out of 10 nursing assistants, most respiratory therapists, a majority of pharmacists and an overwhelming majority of pharmacy aids and technicians. More than two-thirds of the workers at grocery store checkouts and fast-food counter are women.” Nonwhite women are more likely to hold essential jobs than anyone else. The pandemic reveals how we undervalue the work that sustains the local, national, and global economies, particularly the work performed by women.
COVID-19 has also exposed the inability of our social safety nets to address immediate needs and fill in gaps during times of crisis. While this is not new to many people who fight poverty on a daily basis, it is new for those reaching out for assistance for the first time. Many newly unemployed people are experiencing the antiquated and punitive systems that low income people regularly endure when reaching out for support.
In the last four decades, federal and state funding for safety net programs has been cut leaving the poor and working poor with limited or no access to food, affordable housing, childcare, or healthcare. Congregations and food pantries were unable to keep up with demand for food and other forms of support before the coronavirus. Families are making difficult decisions about what or who to pay every month and a disproportionate number of these families are headed by women.
Furthermore, quarantine and isolation increases the likelihood of abuse. COVID-19 has contributed to the rise of economic insecurity and poverty related stress resulting in gender- based violence. Intimate partner violence and child abuse are more likely to increase during times of economic and emotional stress.The quarantine measures implemented as a response to the global pandemic put girls and women at a heightened risk for violence at home. This separates them from the essential protection services and social service networks that would otherwise be available.
Additionally, women and girls face the burden of sexual exploitation by landlords who solicit sex in exchange for rent or other life-sustaining needs. Landlords prey on economically vulnerable including women who are housing insecure, have bad credit, and those women who are targeted are more often women of color, immigrant, and undocumented women. For women and girls trapped in abuse, it is hard to escape their abuser(s)in these challenging times.
Steps for Addressing Gender-Based Inequities in a Post-COVID-19 America
The coronavirus shines a bright light on the faults within our system. How do we change the system and begin to address the macro and micro impacts on women and girls beyond the coronavirus to ensure that they not only survive, but thrive?
One response to the gendered dimensions of COVID-19 is to advocate for closing the gender pay gap. Women must be compensated equally for their work. As women represent half of the workforce, they only make 82 cents for every dollar a man earns. On average, women earn less than men in nearly every single occupation. Despite women’s gains in education and experience, there remains a pay gap for performing the same job. Advocating for pay equity increases women’s economic power and expands their ability to make better choices for themselves and their families.
Second, significantly increasing funding for social safety networks would improve our ability to respond to the needs of women and girls outside of a pandemic and ensure they are better capable of surviving future global and local crises. Expanding the availability of paid sick leave for part time workers, unemployment insurance, direct cash or food voucher payments, and expanded Medicaid coverage would go far to improve the lives of women and girls. Improving access to these services enhances the socio-economic status of women and children living at or below the poverty line. Collectively, we must end the hostility towards funding these programs as well as the assumptions about the people who use them.
And, third, education is an important factor in protecting women from poverty. In the United States, 5.7 percent of women with a bachelor’s degree or higher live in a household with income below the federal poverty line, compared with 12 percent of those with some college education or an associate’s degree, 16.9 percent of those with only a high school diploma or the equivalent, and 33.1 percent of those with less than a high school diploma. Investing in women’s education in addition to providing support services such as sliding scale fee for on-campus childcare, sufficient financial aid packages, and linkages to on and off campus resources are worthwhile investments for future economic security.
These three actions represent a few of the solutions necessary to deal with the gendered implications of COVID-19. Taken together, they can begin to shift the conditions that lead to the increased burdens that women bear during this pandemic. Closing the gender pay gap, bolstering the social safety net, and increasing funding for women’s education are a mere starting point for consideration. There is much more to do. In order to mitigate the intersecting threats of poverty, hunger, lack of access to safe housing, and sexual exploitation we must not only diagnose the problems that impact women and girls, but resolve to eliminate them.
Dr. Michelle Meggs is Executive Director of the UNC Charlotte Women + Girls Research Alliance.