We have seen it in earlier outbreaks of various viruses from nipah to ebola — the gender impact on the progression of the disease is considerable, yet largely neglected. So, it would be naïve to expect that the response to the latest coronavirus outbreak is going to be different. There have been a few impact studies, based on gender, but these have not translated into policy measures during such outbreaks of contagious diseases.
But, as studies quoted in Lancet and undertaken by the World Health Organization showed during the ebola crisis that originated in Africa, men and women are not affected in the same way. Unless we accept this and learn how to deal with this, we cannot frame policies that will benefit women through timely intervention and treatment.
In India, and undoubtedly in many other parts of the world, women are at greater risk given that they tend to be frontline health workers. Almost all nurses are women. They have been dealing with patients affected by coronavirus. Yet, little thought has been given to the plight of health workers who should be a priority in any government policy, given that they are the first line of defence against the virus.
Women are also primary caregivers within families. But within families, given the patriarchal system in which men make all vital decisions, women are likely to get the short end of the stick. Even when a woman is unwell, she has to get on with her daily chores, often with fatal consequences. The lack of economic resources and mobility also makes it more difficult for her to reach a health facility without the help of the men.
Women also constitute the majority of domestic workers. While people are stocking up on masks, sanitisers and food, there is little thought that is being spared for the help at home, who are as vulnerable to the virus outbreak. For most women in low-paid jobs, staying in isolation is not an option.
Women must have a more active role in the protocols — prevention, identification of the disease and surveillance — that accompany any contagious disease outbreak. In fact, given that women are in caregiver and health worker roles, they are a vital part of this chain.
They, also, often pay more attention to detail than their male counterparts. Take an example. Kerala’s health minister, KK Shailaja, happened to be reading late at night, online, when she spotted the news of the outbreak of the coronavirus in Wuhan, China. Since there were students from Kerala there, she lost no time in calling the health secretary and making preparations for their return and testing. She then took advantage of the existing facilities, which had been set up for the nipah outbreak.
This saved the lives of those infected and allowed the state to put in place life-saving protocols for the coronavirus in time.
But Kerala is an exception. In other states, there are few women’s voices in dealing with this outbreak, despite women doing considerable work in combating the coronavirus.
It is time to consider women as a specific target group for awareness campaigns. It is time to take into account the particular vulnerabilities of those women who have higher exposure, yet are helping battle the outbreak. It is time to consider them as active agents in decision-making. And yes, it is time to ensure that India will learn to be gender-sensitive during all such episodes in the future, and listen to the specific concerns of women in handling these crises.