Women and the coronavirus crisis

Women have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic yet they are also critical to recovering from it. Thoraya Obaid speaks to Gitika Bhardwaj about all of the issues as part of a series exploring women in international affairs.

Interview Published 16 July 2021 Updated 25 May 2023 12 minute READ

Thoraya Obaid

Chair, Women 20 (2020); Member, Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response; Member, Shura Council (2013-16); Executive Director, United Nations Population Fund (2001-10)

Gitika Bhardwaj

Former Editor, Communications and Publishing

2020 was a crucial year for the world as the coronavirus crisis unfolded but it was also a critical year for women. While it was the 25th anniversary of the 1995 Beijing Declaration on Women’s Rights, the pandemic presented insurmountable challenges to women too. How has the pandemic affected how far women’s rights have come over the last 25 years?

You’re very right. It has been a very challenging year for the world but particularly for women because, whenever there is a crisis, women are impacted more than other groups in society.

I was chairing the working group on women to the G20, Women 20 (W20), and our work focused largely on the impact of COVID-19 on women because it was a very confusing time. But the issues that came out in our discussions were the same issues that affect women whenever there is a crisis.

For example, we looked at the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), particularly SDG 5 on women, to see how far countries had been working towards implementing it and what the pandemic had done to its implementation. SDG 5 comprises of several targets, from ending all forms of discrimination against women and girls, to equal opportunities. Interestingly, we found that the pandemic had impacted women in each one of these areas.

Over the last 25 years, women’s rights have moved forwards in many areas, but there are still so many inequalities that exist and what the pandemic did was make the world stand naked in front of all of those inequalities.

For sure, there are more women parliamentarians today then there was [25 years ago], such as in Saudi Arabia, where I was among the first group of women to be appointed to the Shura Council. But, where there is still a challenge, is in the minds of people on a daily basis.

The fact that women are paid less than men for the same work is one example and is one of the demands that we still have on the table at the international level. It hasn’t gone away. So, although there is movement forward, there is much more that needs to be done.

The road is still a long road ahead and we need to garner support, not only from women, but also from men. In the W20 delegations last year we only had one man among us. The rest of us were women and many times you felt as if you were talking to the converted. So we need to bring more men on board particularly young men as well as young women too.

The pandemic has made the world stand naked in front of all of the inequalities that exist, and the one that hits you in the face, is the inequality that women face.

The coronavirus crisis is reported to be setting women back decades as women have had to balance working from home with increased domestic duties. The Institute for Fiscal Studies, for example, has revealed mothers in the UK are spending less time working while more time on domestic duties compared to fathers. This trend has also been seen in young people too with girls doing more housework than boys. Why has the pandemic presented challenges to women and girls in the domestic space?

I’m glad you’ve raised this. Many women have lost their jobs because of the pandemic, or if they didn’t lose their job, they have had to work from home and have had the additional burden of taking care of their families including children, older people or people with disabilities.

Furthermore, it’s not only that girls are taking on more domestic duties, but that they are also dropping out of school and, in many countries, reverting back to having early marriages. But, once a girl gets married, she is unlikely to go back to school so girls have been suffering too, not only women, which will impact the rest of their lives. This is one of the hidden tragedies of the pandemic that we have not been talking about sufficiently.

In addition, when we talk about social distancing, for the poor, how can you socially distance when you have 6, 7, 8, 9 people living in an apartment? Or if you supply one computer to a family and children have to take turns to have their classes? The whole idea of social distancing for the poor is not practical because where are they going to go? The challenges of the pandemic keep on escalating from one issue to another.

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Elizebeth Moseray, a teacher at Freetown Secondary School for girls in Sierra Leone, addresses students on their first day back at school on 5 October 2020 after having been closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo: Getty Images.

Elizebeth Moseray, a teacher at Freetown Secondary School for girls in Sierra Leone, addresses students on their first day back at school on 5 October 2020 after having been closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo: Getty Images.

— Elizebeth Moseray, a teacher at Freetown Secondary School for girls in Sierra Leone, addresses students on their first day back at school on 5 October 2020 after having been closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo: Getty Images.

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Women, as you mentioned, have also been the worst-hit in terms of job losses. The loss of women from the workforce has been called a ‘national emergency’ by US Vice-President Kamala Harris where 2.5 million women have lost their jobs or dropped out of the workforce. Similarly, in India, women were twice as likely than men to lose their jobs after lockdown. Why have there been disparities between how men and women have been affected economically by the pandemic?

The pandemic has pushed even more women into poverty than men. In a report by UN Women, it says that the pandemic will push 96 million people – men and women – into extreme poverty by 2021. More than half of them are women and girls which will bring the total number of women and girls living on almost $2 or less to 435 million globally.

Why? Because women disproportionately work in the informal sector where there is no social protection for them. They also work on their own in small businesses so they tend to earn less and have fewer savings. Women are also in the types of jobs that don’t lend themselves to online work such as in the hospitality sector. Then, they are also burdened with unpaid domestic work, which sometimes forces them to leave their paid jobs. On top of this, many women are single parents and, then, they are often not in decision-making positions whether in their families, communities or countries.

The gender gaps that we talk about are multi-dimensional. The gap between the participation of men and women in the labour force has stagnated since 1990, and so, when you have a crisis such as the pandemic, women are bound to be impacted much more than men.

The W20 has focused on tackling these impacts of the pandemic but these issues have been here for a long time. From the World Conference on Women in Mexico City in 1975, to Copenhagen and Nairobi in 1980 and 1985, and then to Beijing in 1995, these questions have been coming up. They have improved slowly from generation to generation but when the pandemic came last year, as I said, we all stood naked in front of all of the inequalities that exist, and the one that hits you in the face, is the inequality that women face.

There has also been a sharp increase in domestic abuse during the pandemic of which women make up nearly 80 per cent of the victims. Last year, Mexico saw almost 1,000 women murdered in three months alone, while the European Union sheltered 100 homeless women, many of which were victims of domestic abuse.

Experts who have studied the social impact of the Ebola and Zika viruses, and are similarly studying the social impact of the coronavirus, warn that the effects of the pandemic could have a long-lasting impact on women for years to come. What needs to be done to address this trend?

Throughout my career at the UN, violence against women has been a main area of focus, where we have kept on talking about putting psycho-social support services in place, sensitizing police and also coaching couples with how to deal with conflict between them.

But, again, violence against women was a calamity that COVID-19 intensified simply because of confinement. Women and men were confined in spaces which produced tension, and of course, created lots of issues and, when they had violent partners, the result is obvious. Then, with the absence of services, they were not able to seek the support that they needed.

Simultaneously, the health systems were falling apart. They were stretched to the maximum to deal with the crisis while domestic violence shelters were reaching capacity. It is estimated – and it’s a horrible figure – that in the previous 12 months, 243 million women and girls between the age of 15 and 49, have been subjected to sexual or physical violence by an intimate partner. 243 million. Can you imagine? It’s shocking and, as long as the pandemic continues, this number is likely to grow even higher.

Mental health is another issue too. Not only the mental health of women and girls, who have been violated, but all of us. You, me, the healthcare workers. In one of the sessions we had with young people between the ages of 18-25 for the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response, we asked, what is it about the pandemic that they felt has impacted them most of all. Amazingly, it was not the virus, but they were feeling isolated, calling it ‘COVID-fatigue’, which had impacted their mental health. So, mental health, whether it is the mental health of women and girls, or of communities as a whole, is important too.

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A woman healthcare worker administers a COVID-19 vaccine to a woman in New Delhi, India. Photo: Getty Images.

A woman healthcare worker administers a COVID-19 vaccine to a woman in New Delhi, India. Photo: Getty Images.

— A woman healthcare worker administers a COVID-19 vaccine to a woman in New Delhi, India. Photo: Getty Images.

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Global health crises affect men and women differently, however, it is seldom addressed. The World Health Organization estimates that women comprise 70 per cent of workers in the healthcare sector, and have therefore been at greater risk of contracting the virus, yet they are paid 11 per cent less than their male counterparts. How important have women in healthcare been in dealing with the crisis? 

Healthcare workers have been on the frontline [of the pandemic] and it has been consistently reported that, other than contracting the virus, healthcare workers have been suffering from severe stress, anxiety, insomnia and depression from all they have seen.

Doctors and nurses sometimes have had to hold the hand of a woman or a man as they were dying alone because their family could not be there but dying alone is not talked about much when we talk about the coronavirus crisis yet it is one of the very sad experiences of the pandemic.

Then, of course, healthcare workers have had to work long hours, taking care of COVID-19 patients and non-COVID-19 patients, while, in the beginning at least, having inadequate PPE and having personal responsibilities too such as taking care of their families as well.

Studies have shown that women have been disproportionately affected by all of this than men. My daughter is a doctor in the UK and she got the virus before there were vaccines and she described it to me as feeling as if a bus had drove over her because of the symptoms she got yet she had to go to work after the recommended 10 days of recovery. You can imagine the pressure.

There are also the issues of unequal pay between men and women and women not being as involved in the decision-making processes as men. Not only the doctors but the nurses and all of the other healthcare workers who are dealing with patients every day too. They often know what needs to be done more than people sitting in their offices yet they are often not included.

Interestingly, the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response looked at reports of many of the national committees that were dealing with COVID-19 and they found that they rarely had a woman sitting on their decision-making bodies which means that issues relating to women, to the family, to the community, were not being brought to the table. This is because women, when they sit at the table, bring a different perspective to men.

These are all issues that touch on the responsibilities women have in the home but also in the workplace yet they are not being supported enough and this applies to women, not only in the health sector, but in all other sectors as well. 

Hawaii has developed a ‘feminist’ post-COVID-19 economic recovery plan – a first for the US and the world – which, at its heart, redresses the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on women. Similarly, some countries, including Canada, Argentina and countries across West Africa, have introduced gender-specific policies to alleviate the effects of the pandemic on women too. Why do you think women are critical to global recovery plans? 

Hillary Clinton said in Beijing in 1995 that women’s rights are human rights so, if you start with that premise, it follows that health is a human right. Women’s health is particularly important because women carry their families and their communities. But, if a woman is not healthy, then she cannot participate in society. Indeed, the IMF coined the phrase that empowering women is ‘smart economics’ but an unhealthy woman cannot be part of smart economics.

Gender equality should be an essential part of every plan that we have. The World Economic Forum estimates that, at the current rate of progress, it will take 267.6 years to close the economic gender gap. In order to build back better – although, I prefer to say, build forward better – the W20 has outlined recommendations for the leaders of the G20 about what needs to be done.

The recommendations include gender-responsive budgeting, increased investment in social infrastructure, equal access to high quality health services, equal participation of women and girls in education, social protection mechanisms particularly for vulnerable groups in low-income countries, stimulating women’s entrepreneurship particularly in the digital economy, and also, increasing women’s and girls’ access to technology by investing in high speed internet connectivity which is becoming the main mode for education and work.

Public and private financial institutions also need to do more to support women who have small businesses yet may not understand technical financial products, and also, we need governments to fund the collection of sex disaggregated data on the pandemic in order to fully understand all of the ways the pandemic has impacted women and men differently.

Gender equality is about men and women being able to live their lives to the fullest and countries as a whole benefit when this is the case. If women represent 40 per cent of the global labour force, as well as more than half of graduates from university, if you add this together, how will that impact the productivity of a country? It will undoubtedly improve. Closing these gender gaps matters for development because it can enhance economic productivity, improve prospects for the next generation and make institutions more representative.

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A woman farmer places okra into crates in a field on 6 July 2021 in Jiangsu Province, China. Photo: Getty Images.

A woman farmer places okra into crates in a field on 6 July 2021 in Jiangsu Province, China. Photo: Getty Images.

— A woman farmer places okra into crates in a field on 6 July 2021 in Jiangsu Province, China. Photo: Getty Images.

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Many of the countries with the strongest response to the coronavirus crisis have been led by women, with an analysis of 194 countries revealing that infection rates, as well as fatality rates, at the beginning of the pandemic were lower in countries with women leaders. Why have women leaders fared better in responding to the coronavirus crisis in contrast to their male counterparts?

I think there a number of reasons why there were eight countries with women leaders who all, in one way or another, were so successful in responding to the pandemic.

The first reason is that they acted fast, such as closing their borders, which we saw with New Zealand, who banned travel before anybody else did, and also Taiwan, who started working on measures right away such as giving free testing.

The second reason is that they understood the needs of different communities while the third reason is that their interventions were holistic with a whole-of-government approach.

When you invest in the social sector, you are investing in people, and that’s what national budgets should be about. Investing in people is an investment in our future.

The fourth reason is that these women leaders had empathy, such as Norwegian Prime Minister, Edna Solberg, who had the innovative idea of talking to her people directly, particularly children and young people, on the TV to reassure them that they were all fighting the pandemic together and thereby empowering them to be involved in the process of saving the country so to speak.

The last reason, and this is very interesting, is about telling the truth. Forbes did an analysis where they found that Angela Merkel told her people that if they did not do something then the coronavirus would infect 70 per cent of the population. She was firm, she was clear and she was with the science.

So, while the women leaders used the crisis to build a stronger link between themselves and their people, some of the male leaders used the crisis for fear, blame and rejecting the science and that’s why these women stand very differently from their male counterparts in terms of how they have fared in dealing with the pandemic.

Looking forwards, UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, has described all forms of inequality as an issue that ‘defines our time.’ Research from Chatham House argues that addressing gender inequality, as we have discussed, is a key part of recovering from the coronavirus crisis. What, in your view, needs to be done in the months and years to come?

I think the most important element is, and I’m paraphrasing Icelandic Prime Minister, Katrín Jakobsdóttir, here, when we talk about budgets, we consider health as an expense while infrastructure, such as building roads, as an investment. In reality, it should be the reverse. Infrastructure is an expense that can be delayed but investment in social services cannot be. When you invest in the social sector – from education, to health, to work  you are investing in people and that’s what national budgets should, above all, be about.

But I still don’t see a change in our understanding around this. Whenever there is an economic crisis, the first thing a country does is cut the social sector so, what we need to do, is to make government’s think of the social sector as being an investment in the people of their country, the well-being of their country and, thereby, the future of their country – for generations to come.

I don’t think anybody has done this so far except, perhaps, Iceland and New Zealand to a certain extent. Again, countries led by women, but this is where I would like to see the world go. Investing in people is an investment in our future.