As we scramble to recalibrate our personal and social lives in response to the coronavirus crisis, systemic failures are being exposed and vulnerable groups neglected. Women have been left out of decision-making in response to the crisis, with men comprising more than 90% of the White House’s coronavirus expert team, and possibly 100% of the analogous team in the UK. When perspectives sensitive to the particular needs of women have been omitted, it is no surprise that women are disproportionately disadvantaged by measures implemented to control the spread of the virus. As ever, the COVID-19 crisis is a gendered crisis.
Under lockdown conditions, women and children who have experienced domestic violence find themselves quarantined with their abusers, where financial difficulties and sudden close confinement magnify tensions in the home. Rises in domestic abuse are seen in most emergencies, such as civil conflict, economic crisis or disease outbreak, and social distancing measures for COVID-19 add a further challenge. Victims are unable to escape the house; friends and neighbours are less likely to intervene. Some domestic violence shelters have been forced to close because of lockdown measures, leaving services stretched and inaccessible at precisely the time that they are most needed.
Italy has reported a sharp drop in calls to domestic violence helplines, but a dramatic rise in ‘desperate texts and emails’ from sufferers of domestic abuse. Reports of domestic violence in Hubei province, where lockdown was first enforced, trebled this February in comparison to February 2019. France saw a 30% increase in reports of domestic violence in the first 10 days of lockdown. A system has been created, whereby women experiencing domestic violence can call for help if they can get to a pharmacy. Spain has gone one step further, introducing a code system to help domestic violence sufferers similar to the #AskForAngela initiative operating in bars and other venues in the UK. Women followed into pharmacies by their abusers can signal to pharmacy workers that they are in need of protection, and France has indicated that it intends to follow suit. The state of Uttar Pradesh, India – notable for its historically poor record concerning domestic violence – has launched a new domestic violence helpline and promised that domestic violence cases will be handled by female police officers.
In the UK, anyone experiencing domestic violence can phone the National Domestic Abuse Helpline, available 24 hours a day and for free, on 0808 2000 247. Female advisers respond to calls and can help locate refuges and specialist services. In an emergency, calling 999 and then pressing 55 automatically transfers a call to the police as an emergency. Women’s Aid Live Chat is also available daily from 10-12pm and does not require speaking on the phone.
Meanwhile, Pornhub has temporarily waived subscription fees, granting free access to porn usually viewable only with paid membership. Pornhub’s Vice President presented the offer as an ‘extra incentive to stay home and flatten the curve’, recommending porn as an ‘enjoyable way to pass the time’. However, is now an appropriate time to encourage men to watch more porn, given the correlations between porn consumption and domestic violence? Aggressive acts against women feature in roughly 87% of porn scenes, even mainstream porn is associated with intent to commit rape, and a majority of women whose abusers used porn acknowledged that porn had an effect on their abuse.
In-person work, including in the sex industry, entails heightened risk of contracting covid-19, placing prostituted women and in-person sex workers in greater danger. Under UK laws surrounding prostitution, most people in the sex industry categorise themselves as self-employed, and 85-90% of those sex workers are women. Without a financial safety net or reliable wage, financial precarity discourages women who undertake in-person sex work from taking time off, even when the choice is available to them. Given ongoing stigma surrounding prostitution and sex work and a need for privacy, women may feel unable to self-declare as sex workers, leaving them deprived of financial aid packages made available by governments to self-employed workers.
Pay Gap and Access to Work
Equalities minister Liz Truss last week suspended gender pay gap reporting, citing the uncertainty and pressure face by employers as a result of coronavirus. Truss is known for her support of business deregulation.
Meanwhile, school closures have left parents suddenly responsible for providing childcare 24 hours a day. In heterosexual married/cohabiting couples, women are still seven times more likely than men to provide childcare on a daily basis; the enduring phenomenon of the ‘second shift’ means that women in employment are still far more likely than their male partners to do domestic labour in addition to waged work. Increased childcare responsibilities will have a disproportionate effect on women, many of whom will be unable to work whilst at home. In the UK, 90% of single-parent households are headed by women. When schools close, women lose a vital part of the infrastructure enabling their financial self-sufficiency, and gain additional responsibilities for educating their children.
Sex Disparities in Direct Effects of Coronavirus
Like other coronaviruses including SARS and MERS, COVID-19 is medically disproportionately dangerous for men: given a diagnosis, men may be 50% more likely to die than women. In Italy, mortality rates in males seem to be twice the mortality rates in females in every age group. However, sex disparities may be attributable to cultural factors increasing the risk of comorbidities in men. Underlying health conditions including hypertension, cardiovascular disease and chronic lung disease are more common in men. Higher rates of these conditions in men may be associated with taking ‘risker life choices’, including smoking tobacco and drinking alcohol. In China, for instance, over 50% of men smoke tobacco, whereas under 3% of Chinese women smoke; 7 million Italian men are smokers, in comparison to 4.5 million Italian women. The risk of needing intensive care and ventilation is more than double in smokers than it is in non-smokers.
Effects of Coronavirus on the Trans Community
In many countries, access to important cross-sex hormones may be disrupted for trans people. Trans people who attend health clinics in person to receive hormone injections may be at increased risk of exposure to covid-19. There have been reports of clinics being shut down, leaving trans people unable to access hormones critical for physical transition. There is also a risk that hormone supply chains may be disrupted as a result of border closures, leaving some without access to the hormones they need.
While in medical terms, COVID-19 appears to be disproportionately dangerous for men – in social terms, women may be much harder hit. As the world works out its response to this pandemic, the gendered impact of the disease and of the steps we take to defeat it demand our full attention. When we look back on the decisions we have made, let there be no regrets.