Preliminary figures show that women and men are being infected by COVID-19 in roughly equal numbers, but the mortality rate is higher for men. This is potentially due to sex-based immunological or gendered differences, such as the prevalence of smoking. However, the scarcity of gender disaggregated data makes any effective comparison difficult. Moreover, research on previous epidemics, such as SARS and Ebola, indicates that women are impacted differently by health crises and epidemics.

Fatalities alone do not fully showcase the ways in which women and men are vulnerable to the immediate risks of epidemics, or how they experience the longer-term threats and consequences. Socially prescribed cultural norms, attitudes, and practices in relation to gender play a critical role in how individual women and men are affected.

Caring responsibilities, domestic violence, and psychological wellbeing

Women are often the main caregivers in their homes, communities, and health facilities, which puts them at an increased risk of contracting COVID-19. In the UK, 77% of the NHS workforce and the majority of informal carers are women. More broadly, an analysis of 104 countries revealed that women form 70% of workers in the health and social sectors, and 50% of unpaid carers. At the same time, over 70% of CEOs and board chairs in global health are men, while just 5% of are women from low- and middle-income countries. Although so many women are working on the COVID-19 frontlines, women, therefore, have little say in the policy measures put in place to address the crisis.

Incidences and reports of violence against women within the household have also risen. This points to male psychological distress due to short-term loss of work and earnings, and subsequent violent behaviour and/or confinement at home with abusive partners during lockdown. As a result, in the long-run women’s psychological well-being might be affected even more adversely than men’s from financial and emotional stress, combined with physical violence.

The economic consequences of COVID-19 for women

In rural areas, women’s involvement on farms may go up in regions where there is shortage of labour due to a decrease in the number of migrant labourers. For instance in India, during this year’s harvest season (March-April), many migrants have moved back to their homes. This may result in higher agricultural wages for women in the short-run. Therefore, the demand for women’s time both within and outside the household may rise in rural India. The net effect on women’s time allocation will depend on the relative net benefits of time at home and outside.

In urban areas, due to the greater proportion of nuclear families, women may be needed to support the family by being at home to take care of the sick and/or due to loss of jobs/earnings in the immediate future. In the long-run, however, if working from home becomes the norm, more work opportunities may become available to women who often prefer home-based work.

Moreover, in many countries, women's participation in the labour market is often in the form of temporary employment. Across the world, women represent less than 40% of total employment but make up 57% of those working part-time. In many sub-Saharan African countries, travel restrictions will constrain the many women in the informal sector, who depend on incomes that are earned on a daily basis, from plying their trade.

The effects of school closures on girls from vulnerable backgrounds

Many women also have to tutor their children as governments around the world have temporarily closed schools in order to contain the spread of COVID-19. There are mounting concerns on the impact of these school closures on over 111 million girls who are living in countries affected by extreme poverty or conflict, where gender disparities in education are highest. In Mali, Niger, and South Sudan, three countries with some of the lowest enrolment and completion rates for girls, closures have forced over four million girls out of school.

Meanwhile, in Zambia, where the rate of girls dropping out from grade seven onwards is almost twice the rate of boys, the government decided to close all schools before a single case of coronavirus was reported. In the medium- to long-term, the closure of schools will have a negative impact on education outcomes for both girls and boys alike. But more worryingly, considering the economic difficulties wrought by COVID-19 and the increased risk of teenage pregnancies during lockdowns, many girls will be unable to go back to school again.

Policy recommendations

Policymakers need to incorporate a gender analysis into the development of COVID-19 policies and as the pandemic unfolds, there is urgent need for sex-disaggregated data to fully understand how women and men are affected by the virus. Understanding the impact of lockdowns on women and girls could lead to the development and implementation of other effective policy measures. Similarly, assessing the gendered aspects of minimising disruptions and maintaining supply chains for essential items is likely to lead to better outcomes for all, men and women.

Unconditional cash transfers to women bank account holders are expected to improve the financial and intra-household status of female beneficiaries, as well as their psychosocial well-being. Governments should, therefore, target beneficiaries under as many schemes as possible to ensure maximum reach.

As the lockdowns are eased, creating accessible information portals on job availability would help both men and women match with potential employers, especially in urban areas. More than ever, technology is going to be at the core of our “new normal” and bridging the digital gap will increase girls’ and women’s chances of accessing education and jobs.

Admittedly, we are only learning the socio-economic implications of this health crisis as it unfolds. In order to address any gendered effects, one must take into account the fact that the short-term implications may differ from the long-term. There may be forces working in both directions, reducing versus increasing gender inequality. We must, therefore, have flexible policy tools to address women’s concerns as the effects of the health crisis evolve over time.

Author’s note: The author would like to thank Farzana Afridi and Twivwe Siwale for their contribution to this article.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this post are those of the authors based on their experience and on prior research and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IGC.