The Cheat Sheet

Women: The most underrated casualty of Covid-19?

| Updated on May 13, 2020 Published on May 14, 2020

I’d answer in the affirmative.

Right you are! As in the case of wars, pandemics and epidemics leave a lasting — and in most cases irreparable — dent on the life, work and mental well-being of women in societies they ravage. But unfortunately, they are not given due attention as most cases are written off as collateral casualties. Worse, if history is any indicator, we will never come to know the magnitude of the impact of Covid-19 on women in the affected countries and beyond.


It would be interesting to note that one of the most underrated impacts of the Black Death (plague) that ravaged Europe in the middle of the 14th century was that it shrunk, literally, the women who endured the pandemic in the continent. A recent study in the American Journal of Human Biology by bio-archaeologist Sharon DeWitte from the University of South Carolina found that, after studying more than 800 skeletons from Medieval London, the physical frame of the women who came after the plague were smaller than their predecessors.

But why?

There could be many reasons. It could be that the women went through more mental stress than men. Or it could be a reflection of the way the availability of nutritious food has changed over the period after the pandemic. The Black Death, which killed a third or more of Europe’s population, had created a shortage of workers. As a result, wages had gone up and to attract workers, prices of food had gone down. Some historians and scientists believe that while the working men had access to better food, the home-bound women would have had to make do with less healthy and less nutritious food.

Oh dear, difficult to fathom such a scenario today.

Well, every sign points towards a similar crisis even today. Early studies and analyses on the impact of Covid-19 suggest that women bear the brunt of it all in, mainly, five ways — social, psychological, economical, political and biological. That’s a long list. A policy brief released by the United Nations on April 9, 2020 — The Impact of Covid-19 on Women — notes that the pandemic will roll back many of the limited gender equality gains made in the past decades. It notes that, ironically, 2020 marks the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Platform for Action, which was a ground-breaking event for gender equality, held as part of the UN’s Fourth World Conference on Women in September 1995.

Now, the pandemic will worsen all existing inequalities.

Indeed. Considering that joblessness has already shot up — UN’s labour agency ILO estimates that nearly two billion workers will be impacted by the coronavirus crisis — and informal sectors of work will face an immediate bloodbath; women stand to lose a lot. The UN estimates that the crisis will be worse in developing economies where the vast majority of women’s employment — 70 per cent — is in the informal economy. Almost all women workers receive no social security cover or have access to decent work or wages. In all likelihood, most of them will be thrown out of the labour system forever. In societies where patriarchy favours its men, the women may not be able to make a comeback like the men.


During the Ebola health scare in Liberia, where nearly 85 per cent of daily market traders are women, the resultant panic and economic crisis impacted most of the female workforce in the informal economy and many of them were pushed into abject poverty, patriarchal violence thanks to their diminished economic freedom, and even death.

What about India?

Reports suggest that Covid-19 and the resultant lockdown have already impacted India’s women, not only women workers, in unimaginable ways. Empirical data put out of psychologists’ collectives show that domestic violence has gone alarmingly up in the country. The work-from-home schedules have already impacted the women in families as they are by default bound to balance work and life. The resultant stress is already causing tremors in several families, according to news reports and health communiqué.


Socially, the isolation and the quarantines are taking a toll on the women who are left with little time after finishing work and familial duties. The fear of job cuts is also high among the women considering that the job economy has been historically apathetic towards them. Now that the government has been trying to dilute labour laws, scores of women workers are going to be left in the lurch. History shows that when it comes to slapping pink slips, most businesses look for the vulnerable and women feature prominently there.

Sigh, again!

All these socio-economic changes are going to make women’s place in society a much miserable affair going ahead. An interesting thesis quoted in — by Michael J Phifer of University of Houston in 2014, titled Property, Power and Patriarchy: The Decline of Women’s Property Right in England After the Black Death — shows the response of the society and government to the Black Death in England undermined the “social strength of women’s property rights and created a late-medieval patriarchal structure.” In all likelihood, the latest pandemic will also make women extremely vulnerable and make them weaker in their homes and societies, introducing them to more oppression and violence.

So, what has to be done?

The UN policy brief has some pointers: include women and women’s organisations at the heart of the Covid-19 response; transform the inequities of unpaid care work into a new, inclusive care economy that works for everyone; design socio-economic plans focussing on the lives and futures of women and girls. Any plans for a post-Covid world should include a special mention of the most underrated casualty of the pandemic — the women. Governments, businesses and civil society groups must get their acts together on this before it’s too late.

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Published on May 14, 2020
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