Health and Healthcare Systems

The coronavirus fallout may be worse for women than men. Here's why

A woman, wearing protective face masks following an outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), walks on a street in Tokyo, Japan March 9, 2020. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido - RC27GF9L0MB9

The majority of health workers tackling the coronavirus will be women. Image: REUTERS/Edgard Garrido

Rosamond Hutt
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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  • Women comprise the majority of health and social care workers, and are on the front lines of the fight against COVID-19.
  • Mass school closures have particularly affected women because they still bear much of the responsibility for childcare.
  • Women already do three-times as much unpaid care work than men – and caring for relatives with the virus adds to the burden.

Are men and women feeling the effects of the coronavirus differently?

Research from China suggests that while COVID-19 is infecting men and women in about equal numbers, women appear less likely to die from the virus than men.

A study of some 44,600 people with COVID-19 from the Chinese Center for Disease Control showed the death rate among men was 2.8%, compared with 1.7% for women.

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Scientists say there could be a number of reasons for this difference, including biological and lifestyle factors. For example, Chinese men are much more likely than women to smoke, which harms the immune system. Also, women tend to produce stronger immune responses against infections than men.

But in other, perhaps less obvious ways, the virus appears to disproportionately affect women. As the fight against COVID-19 continues, an increasing number of women around the world are on the front lines. Many of them will be expected to work longer hours, while juggling domestic responsibilities such as childcare.

Here are a few examples of coronavirus's gendered impact.

Health workers

Chinese authorities have sent more than 41,000 health workers from around the country to support medical staff at the epicentre of the outbreak in Hubei province.

By 24 February, 3,387 health workers in China were infected with COVID-19, more than 90% of them in Hubei.

More than half of the doctors and 90% of the nurses in Hubei are women, according to the Shanghai Women’s Federation, a government body.

More broadly, women make up the majority of workers in the health and social care sector – 70% in 104 countries analyzed by the World Health Organization (WHO).

Number of women physicians and nurses.
Women form 70% of workers in the health and social sector, according to the World Health Organization. Image: World Health Organization

They also earn 11% less than men in the same field, according to the WHO.

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Unpaid caregivers

Women and girls already do most of the world’s unpaid care work.

According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), globally, women perform 76.2% of total hours of unpaid care work, more than three-times as much as men. In Asia and the Pacific, that figure rises to 80%.

As health systems become stretched, many people with COVID-19 will need to be cared for at home, adding to women’s overall burden, as well as putting them at greater risk of becoming infected.

School closures

Nearly 300 million students globally are currently missing class due to virus-led school closures, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

The mass shutdown of childcare centres and schools across 15 countries, as well as localized closures in a further 14 countries, has left many working parents with little choice but to take time off, or to try to work from home while caring for their children.

As The New York Times reports, the closing of schools hits women particularly hard because much of the responsibility for childcare still falls on them.

Those who are poor, working in service jobs that cannot be done from home, and those without paid leave are especially vulnerable.

Another unintended consequence of school closures is strain on health systems, according to UNESCO, with many medical professionals struggling to find childcare.

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Health and Healthcare SystemsEquity, Diversity and Inclusion
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