Current Canadian data shows an equal number of infections in men and women (1). Evidence worldwide suggests that the death rate for men is slightly higher.
But the conversation is now broadening beyond the number of cases. When we examine past epidemics, and look at facts we already know, we can start to see how COVID-19’s lasting effects will disproportionately affect women.
EXPOSURE IN HEALTHCARE SETTINGS
In BC, 80% of healthcare workers are women. This means more women will be at risk for exposure in healthcare settings. Most of them occupy nursing roles, which have higher levels of exposure than doctors, according to Dr. Celine Gounder, an infectious disease specialist and epidemiologist, in this article by the New York Times.
“Nurses [are] much more involved in intimate care of patients. They’re the ones drawing blood, they’re the ones collecting specimens.” – Dr. Celine Gounder.
ACCESS TO SERVICES
When all healthcare resources are directed to support frontline needs, there is a trickle down effect for those with existing health concerns.
Many non-urgent appointments, surgeries, and screening programs such as mammograms and colonoscopies have been suspended to reduce the burden on the health system.
Individuals who would have previously sought out healthcare, might find themselves choosing to delay, in order to adhere to social distancing guidelines and avoid possible exposure to COVID-19. This reduced access to appointments and programs could lead to health issues for women in the long term.
Social distancing and self-isolation also pose a major threat to women, as intimate partner violence rates increase.
Stress, alcohol consumption, financial difficulties, and feeling loss of control are known triggers for violence in the home. Already the Vancouver-based Battered Women’s Support Services has reported their calls have increased by over 100 percent.
Women were already more likely to be lower earners, before the COVID-19 pandemic began. Canadian women earn 69 cents on the dollar annually compared to men. This difference is even greater for women of colour and new immigrants.
In Canada, more than 1.9 million women live on a low income (2). For those who face no other choice but to work during this time, there’s a higher risk of exposure.
In BC, the past five months saw 27.3% of women working part time, compared with 10.6% of men (3). Part time jobs are often the first to experience lay-offs or reduced hours in times of economic uncertainty.
COVID-19’s economic impact is different from past recessions which tended to see traditionally male industries like manufacturing and construction impacted. Now there is a greater impact on sectors like education, restaurants, hospitality, and social services – all of which have more employees who are women.
Women are also proven to take on more unpaid responsibilities at home – like caregiving, cooking, and cleaning.
For those with children, families are making tough decisions about how to divide up childcare. In BC, there are an estimated 560,645 students in public schools alone. Parents who had help from family members or paid caregivers are no longer able to access these supports.
“It’s not just about social norms of women performing care roles; it’s also about practicalities. Who is paid less? Who has the flexibility?” – Clare Wenham, an assistant professor of global-health policy at the London School of Economics, stated in an Atlantic article.
This new reality is even more challenging for single parents; 81% of single parent households in Canada are headed by women.
HOW CAN WE START TO ADDRESS THIS?
BC Women’s Health Foundation has the responsibility to ensure that there is continued investment in women’s health research.
In times of intense difficulties, there is the temptation to classify gender as a side issue, or something to tackle later once the “real crisis” has been addressed.
But we’ve learned that past epidemics only magnified and exacerbated existing inequities. Women’s unique healthcare needs persist.
Our COVID-19 Response Fund: Women’s Health Research has been developed to support our partners at the Women’s Health Research Institute as they explore the full impact of the pandemic on women. This vitally important research will allow us to ensure that we can advocate for recovery policies that support women, and ensure that we do not lose decades of gender equity advancements.
Supporting the health of women is supporting the health of our community.
BC Women’s Health Foundation is BC’s largest non-profit organization dedicated to advancing the full spectrum of women’s health. The information shared is intended to educate, inform, and point readers to credible sources. It is not intended to substitute professional medical advice. Always seek the advice of qualified healthcare professionals with any questions specific to your medical condition. For more information, visit HealthLinkBC.ca.