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The Guardian view on women and the pandemic: what happened to building back better?

Editorial
·3-min read

One year into the pandemic, women have little cause to celebrate International Women’s Day tomorrow, and less energy to battle for change. Men are more likely to die from Covid-19. But women have suffered the greatest economic and social blows. They have taken the brunt of increased caregiving, have been more likely to lose their jobs and have seen a sharp rise in domestic abuse.

In the UK, women did two-thirds of the extra childcare in the first lockdown, and were more likely to be furloughed. In the US, every one of the 140,000 jobs lost in December belonged to a woman: they saw 156,000 jobs disappear, while men gained 16,000. But white women actually made gains, while black and Latina women – disproportionately in jobs that offer no sick pay and little flexibility – lost out. Race, wealth, disability and migration status have all determined who is hit hardest. Previous experience suggests that the effects of health crises can be long-lasting: in Sierra Leone, over a year after Ebola broke out, 63% of men had returned to work but only 17% of women.

The interruption to girls’ education is particularly alarming: Malala Fund research suggests that 20 million may never return to schooling. The United Nations Population Fund warns that there could be an extra 13 million child marriages over the next decade, and 7 million more unplanned pregnancies; both provision of and access to reproductive health services has been disrupted. In the US, Ohio and Texas exploited disease control measures to reduce access to abortions. The UN has described the surge in domestic violence which began in China and swept around the world as a “shadow pandemic”. Research has even suggested that the pandemic may lead to more restrictive ideas about gender roles, with uncertainty promoting conservatism.

Coronavirus has not created inequality or misogyny. It has exacerbated them and laid them bare. Structural problems such as the pay gap, as well as gendered expectations, explain why women have taken on more of the extra caregiving. The pandemic’s radicalising effect has echoes of the #MeToo movement. Women knew the challenges they faced, but Covid has confronted them with unpalatable truths at both intimate and institutional levels.

In doing so, it has created an opportunity to do better. Germany has given parents an extra 10 days paid leave to cover sickness or school and nursery closures, and single parents 20. Czech authorities have trained postal workers to identify potential signs of domestic abuse. But the deeper task is to rethink our flawed economies and find ways to reward work that is essential to us all. So far, there are precious few signs of building back better.

Around 70% of health and social care workers globally are female, and they are concentrated in lower-paid, lower-status jobs. They deserve a decent wage. The 1% rise offered to NHS workers in the UK is an insult. The government also needs to bail out the childcare sector: without it, women will not return to work. It has not done equality impact assessments on key decisions – and it shows. The budget has admittedly earmarked £19m for tackling domestic violence, but Women’s Aid estimates that £393m is needed. And the UK is slashing international aid at a time when spending on services such as reproductive health is more essential than ever. Nonetheless, as a donor, it should at least press recipient governments to prioritise women in their recovery plans.

Overworked and undervalued women have more awareness than ever of the need for change, and less capacity to press for it. Men too must play their part. Some have recognised more fully the demands of childcare and housework, and seen the potential benefits of greater involvement at home. Significant “use it or lose it” paternity leave might help to reset expectations both in families and the workplace. There were never easy solutions, and many look harder than ever. But the pandemic has shown that we can’t carry on like this.