Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic just a few short months ago, the entire world has been in an uproar. Globally, the virus has killed over 200,000 people, and has infected over 2.8 million. The virus has had a staggering negative impact on the global economy and on the domestic economies of countries that have been hit the hardest. Entire nations have completely shut down, and the majority of states in the United States have as well. Governments, including federal and state governments here in the United States, are justifiably worried about the impact these closures will have on American society in the long term.
Research is being conducted on the various ways that this COVID-19 pandemic is disproportionately impacting different pockets of society. This research has led to a few results that seem intuitive; for example, the pandemic is much more of a risk to poor minorities living in densely populated urban areas than it is to wealthy individuals living in the suburbs. Experts believe this is a result of a number of factors, including population density, lack of access to healthcare, increased reliance on public transit, and the fact that many people in this demographic work in service jobs that place them at a higher risk of exposure.
What this research is also showing is that the COVID-19 pandemic is exacerbating many of the problems that women face in the United States and around the world today.
One frightening example of this lies in domestic violence research. Domestic violence is “the most widespread but among the least reported human rights abuses” in the world, with one in every three women globally experiencing it during their lifetime. For women living in abusive households, mandatory lockdowns have eliminated the ability for victims to have the small outlets of relief that come with running errands or being home alone while their abusers are at work. Abusers are more likely to become violent with their victims when they experience stress in their own lives; the stress of a pandemic, combined with having 24-hour access to victims, has led to a surge in domestic violence hotline calls from women around the world experiencing physical and psychological violence from their abusers. Gun sales have been increasing, a common response to times of crisis, but a response that places more women at risk of being killed by their abusers. Isolation is also a very prevalent abuse tactic in domestic violence situations, and the pandemic only makes it that much easier for abusers to keep their victims isolated given stay-at-home orders.
To top it all off, many governments, including those here in the United States, were wildly unprepared for such a surge in domestic violence cases. Healthcare facilities are overloaded, which makes it difficult for victims to attend counseling even virtually. Shelters and other institutions that serve as safe spaces for women fleeing domestic violence are underfunded and overburdened, unable to keep up with the increased demand. Victims of domestic violence are much less likely to go to hospitals or to see family when they are raped or beaten by their abusers, out of fear of contracting COVID-19 or spreading it to their loved ones.
The pandemic has also increased the barriers that women in the United States and globally have to overcome to receive proper reproductive healthcare. For starters, it has become more difficult for women to obtain necessary medications, including contraceptives, STI antibiotics, and HIV/AIDS treatments. These medications are often essential tools that permit women to control their reproductive health, and their inability to access these medications leaves women vulnerable to infections and unwanted pregnancies. Similarly, women who are suffering from reproductive health problems like UTIs or complications with pregnancies are less able to see physicians due to the way the pandemic is overrunning the United States healthcare system. For those who are able to get in to see physicians, they are at an increased risk of contracting the virus because of their presence in healthcare facilities. Research by the Guttmacher Institute indicates that based on the pandemic, the world will likely see 15 million unintended pregnancies, 1.7 million women suffering major pregnancy complications, and 28,000 maternal deaths from said complications. The numbers for women who can’t access abortion procedures are equally frightening: if states and nations prevent women from accessing abortion care during the pandemic, the number of unsafe abortions around the world will likely increase by 3 million, resulting in at least 1,000 more women dying.
These risks are even greater for women of low socioeconomic status. Women who rely on public transportation to meet with reproductive care specialists and obtain medication may, understandably, be afraid of using public transit during a pandemic, or prevented from using it altogether depending on how various cities respond to this public health crisis. Women who do not have job security, such as paid sick leave, or who work for employers that are laying off employees due to financial problems, are likely less able to afford quality reproductive care than they were before the pandemic.
In the United States, women across the country have already begun to see their reproductive rights infringed upon by state governments. Many states have placed a delay on procedures that are not deemed “medically necessary” during the COVID-19 pandemic, in an effort to keep people in their homes and out of hospitals, thus freeing up medical resources. In some states, like Texas, lawmakers have already used the pandemic as a way to prohibit abortions that are not “necessary to preserve the life or health of the mother.” The federal government is also posing a threat to the reproductive health of women during the pandemic by virtue of the current administration’s sexual and reproductive health policies. These policies, namely foreign and domestic “gag rules,” have decreased funding both to U.S. clinic that provide women with contraceptives and other reproductive services, as well as to foreign NGOs that provide such services. If the administration follows this track record, it’s likely that the pandemic will provide yet another reason for the government to limit women’s access to reproductive care.
Childcare and Other Burdens
The pandemic doesn’t just pose a threat to the physical and emotional wellbeing of women; it also threatens to overwork women and place them under higher levels of stress because of the societal expectation that women are the caretakers around the home. In the United States and around the world, women in heterosexual relationships disproportionately are responsible for childcare and housework, while their male partners are expected to work and earn the bulk of the income. Even in situations where women work and children are in school or daycare, it’s often women who become the chief parental officers once the workday ends. Now that the pandemic has prevented children from attending school and daycare, these ingrained societal expectations are likely to result in women having to juggle 24/7 childcare in addition to working from home. This will lead to many mothers missing work and performing poorly in their careers, during a time when poor performance could lead to being laid off so that companies can save money.
Women are more likely than men to suffer from other forms of professional and financial problems due to this pandemic as well. In addition to juggling childcare and work, women disproportionately work in industries that do not provide protections like paid sick leave, which means that any days missed will be income lost. Women make up the majority of the population of restaurant workers in the United States, which has left many women without a source of income as restaurants close down. What’s more, women make up the majority of many healthcare positions like nursing, which places them at an increased risk of contracting the virus.
Why This Matters
In the United States and around the world, women face threats and deal with problems that men do not need to worry about. Women are more likely than men to be raped and beaten at the hands of their partners, to spend their lives caring for children at the expense of professional fulfillment, and to lack access to quality reproductive healthcare. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated all of these problems and brought to light what many liberal and feminist scholars have called society’s war on women. Many of the problems that this pandemic is unveiling are problems that women will not easily forget. Women will not forget the governments that consider their reproductive health “unnecessary” during times of crisis, or that consider domestic violence resources an afterthought during a time when victims are at a higher risk of abuse than ever before. If governments do not prioritize the health and wellbeing of women during this pandemic, thousands of women will die from preventable causes like unsafe abortions and domestic violence, and millions more will likely have their lives irrevocably altered by things like unwanted pregnancies and lost careers. The COVID-19 pandemic is a women’s issue, and it is time that governments treat it as one.