By Aria Grabowski, Policy and Advocacy Manager, ICRW
As originally published in Ms. Magazine on March 31, 2020
As the world shelters in place and takes action to slow down the rapid spread of COVID-19—a disease that is wreaking havoc on humanity, healthcare systems and economies, all with gender implications—the focus and solutions have been on the immediate short-term crisis, as they should be.
People are losing their incomes, making it hard to pay for basic needs like housing and food, and there is an increased risk for gender-based violence.
As the virus reaches further into communities worldwide, it may seem too soon to look towards recovery.
If we do not start now, while the world is watching, then the attention will shift—and so too will the loud collective voice calling for action. We will return to our normal lives, and recovery funds like those allotted for the Ebola outbreak and earthquake in Haiti will go unspent, while leaving the work unfinished.
Women and others marginalized by social norms and systematic policies are likely to bear the brunt of this unfinished work.
To ensure women are not left without adequate support—rendering them worse off for the years to come—the COVID-19 response has to take into account the gendered impacts of this crisis. All efforts should draw on lessons learned from past disease outbreaks and sufficiently integrate gender considerations into recovery plans.
It is critical that global leaders do not repeat past efforts’ shortcomings or believe that robust responses end when cases dwindle and cities re-open, as this could be especially harmful to women who are more likely to work in the informal economy and sectors more at risk from pandemic disruption.
Jobs will not immediately reappear, and everyone will not suddenly be okay. Response plans must acknowledge this and extend financial support to people who remain unemployed.
For women, whose wages are smaller—and for women of color whose wages are even smaller—not addressing the longer-term implications of their lost income could have compounding financial ramifications.
After the 2008 global recession, a variety of impacts that increased gender inequalities were identified in relation to austerity measures, stimulus packages and social norms. Some austerity measures resulted in reduced funding for social services. So, women had to take on more unpaid care work, making it harder for them to enter or re-enter the workforce or return to school.
Additionally, due to more restricted lending, women’s access to credit was further limited, making it even more difficult for them and their businesses to rebound from economic shocks.
Stimulus packages and austerity measures must take gender inequalities and their associated long-term impacts into account—rather than just perpetuating boosts to formal employment sectors that tend to benefit men.
Additionally, budgetary belt tightening, as a response to economic declines, must not cut into already strapped funding for health and social services that tend to place additional burdens on women.
About 70 percent of the healthcare and social service workers globally are women. In building back depleted health systems, workforce gender dynamics must be accounted for in a long-term recovery plan and women need to be integrated in health governance.
These plans must also include access to education, regardless of gender, so that a generation of future healthcare workers are not lost simply because they were unable to return to school.
The response must also ensure there are plans to deal with the long-term physical and mental health implications that health workers will likely face as a result of exposure to COVID-19, as well as the trauma that comes with frontline work.
As healthy systems are being restored, efforts need to go beyond the workforce to include holistic recovery that addresses access to services impacted by the outbreak.
COVID-19 responses need to include recovery plans that work to ensure that maternal health and sexual and reproductive health and rights are upheld and restored. If the impacts from COVID-19 mirror those of the 2014-2015 Ebola outbreak, there could be reductions in births in health care facilities, antenatal care visits, and family planning.
To ensure that the impact from these reductions is short-lived, resources need to be set aside to counter barriers to accessing good quality and equitable healthcare. It is also critical that sexual and reproductive health financing not be sliced and diced when austerity measures are applied to budgets.
The response to COVID-19 must be comprehensive. It must address the immediate need for equipment and social safety measures in order to flatten the pandemic curve and lead the way to recovery.
It must also address the long-term impacts—including factoring in the implications for gender differences and social expectations.
The world cannot wait. While healthcare workers across the globe combat this pandemic, we must begin laying out the roadmap to recovery—a roadmap informed both by experiences from the frontlines today and the lessons learned from our past.
The world must choose a different direction in 2020, where we take what we have learned, refuse to abandon women or leave behind the most marginalized, and march together on that path to true recovery.
About the author:
Aria Grabowski serves as policy and advocacy manager at the International Center for Research on Women. Prior to ICRW, Aria worked as a Senior Policy Advisor at Oxfam where she focused on global and US advocacy to make aid and development finance more effective, and ensure it was inclusive of the most vulnerable populations. She focused on ensuring gender was mainstreamed in foreign assistance, women’s economic empowerment, transparency and accountability, US appropriations, and pushing for an inclusive development driven US Development Finance Corporation. Aria recently published a research paper, while with Oxfam, that used publicly available information to assess the quality of major donors’ gender funding, including those with feminist policies, in an attempt to hold them accountable to their commitments. Aria has a background in public health and also worked at the ONE Campaign tracking Ebola funding and at the Carter Center focusing on disease eradication in South Sudan. She has also worked in Lesotho, Ghana, and the Caribbean doing health and youth development work. Aria earned a Master of Public Health from Boston University and Bachelor of Arts in Justice from American University.