The Gendered Impact of a Pandemic

COVID-19 has vastly impacted the way we live our lives. Not only have we had to endure a health crisis, but we’ve also had to endure an economic and financial crisis. Loss of jobs, school shutdowns, and adopting practices such as social distancing to flatten the curve amid the COVID-19 outbreak, have placed a significant burden on women and marginalised communities. It’s during these times of crisis that we recognise the varying experiences of people of all genders, with women, the LGBTIQ community, First Nations people, people with a disability and other marginalised communities disproportionately affected.

Access to health care services

As a result of the pandemic we recognise the demand for our government and health care system to prioritise the needs of women, the LGBTIQ community, First Nations people, people with a disability and other marginalised communities.

This pandemic has had huge implications on the health and wellbeing of our communities, exacerbating health issues and issues with the healthcare system that existed in a pre-pandemic world.

As a result of the pandemic we have seen the need for priority access to Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for people who are at high risk of contracting the virus, such as people with a disability; and the need to also provide women working on the frontline of the crisis (nurses teachers, early childhood educators, aged-care, disability, mental health, and family violence workers) with equipment to ensure they are able to continue to work and provide services safely.

Despite the pandemic highlighting this as a gendered issue, as identified by the Multicultural Centre for Women’s Health (MCWH), we have also seen ‘direct acts of racism… at a time when social cohesion is needed most’ (It’s time for true universal healthcare, 2020). They have highlighted the need for:

  • accurate and clear multilingual resources on COVID-19;
  • for more support to be given to migrant women on visas when accessing necessary health services; and
  • for more research to be conducted into the ‘impacts on migrant women’s sexual and reproductive health, pregnancy, caring roles, family violence, mental health, discrimination and workplace rights, not to mention the impacts on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and their families.’

The severe lack of data is an issue that we see when looking at the impacts that COVID-19 has on the LGBTIQ community and on people with disabilities. This highlights a major issue in the biases of research. 

As stated by the Royal Commission into the Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with a Disability, ‘even in non-pandemic circumstances, people with disability are more likely than the general population to have health issues, compromised immunity, increased risk of morbidity, comorbidities and are more likely to die from preventable causes. Some people with disability will be unable to maintain social distancing practices because they rely on support workers for vital daily personal care, such as eating, drinking, toileting and dressing.’

Further to this, we recognise the daily discrimination experienced by LGBTIQ people pre-COVID-19, and how these fears of discrimination and stigma are understandably elevated during the pandemic. These concerns often act as a barrier when needing to access services. Providing safe and welcoming services should be a priority for the healthcare system, to ensure the overall positive health and wellbeing of our LGBTIQ community.

Impact on mental health

Results from the ABS Household Impacts of COVID-19 surveys show that the most commonly experienced personal stressor as a result of COVID-19 was loneliness (22 per cent), with women more likely to report feeling lonely than men (28 per cent compared with 16 per cent). This research identifies the need for continual support for women, however, it fails to highlight the impact that the pandemic has on our most vulnerable communities.

According to Rainbow Health Victoria, ‘evidence already suggests that pre-COVID-19, LGBTIQ people experience anxiety and depression at higher rates than their non-LGBTIQ peers, and are also at greater risk of suicide and self-harm’. With physical distancing and social isolation practices being enforced, we must recognise the impact this has on people who rely on community connection and peer support.

Similarly, people with a disability and migrant communities face are more likely to experience mental ill-health due to not being able to connect with peers and social groups and are at a higher risk due to not being able to access mental health services, as recognised by the Royal Commission.

Impact on sexual and reproductive health

Evidence also shows that access to sexual and reproductive health services has been impacted during the pandemic. With the federal government announcing that ‘community pharmacies will be enforcing limits on dispensing and sales of certain prescription’ medications during COVID-19, many people are at risk of having limited access to oral contraceptive.

Looking to elective surgeries, in late March the federal government announced the cancellation of all elective surgeries in public and private hospitals, including gender affirming surgery which is fundamental to the health and wellbeing of many trans, gender diverse people and non-binary people. There were also fears that women would lose access to surgical abortion services, as it was unclear as to whether this surgery would be classified as an elective or essential procedure. Fortunately, Marie Stopes confirmed abortion is an essential service and they would continue to provide the service throughout the pandemic. 1800 My Options is another service that is still open and providing information and their services across the state.

Economic and financial security

According to the ABS Household Impacts of COVID-19 surveys, we know that:

  • One in five adults (22 per cent) with children in their household changed their working hours to care for children who had to be kept at home.
  • Women were almost three times as likely as men to look after children on their own (46 per cent compared with 17 per cent).
  • Nearly half (46 per cent) of working Australians said they were working from home, with women more likely to do so than men (56 per cent compared with 38 per cent).

Since the beginning of the pandemic, we have recognised that women, who already take on most of the unpaid care work, were reducing their hours or giving up paid work to meet the needs of their family. As schools rolled out distant learning modules, parents faced the inevitable struggle of managing their child’s educational needs, as well as maintaining their employment.

Before the pandemic, the Victorian Government’s Report into the value of unpaid labour in Victoria assessed women’s work at a value of $205 Billion, which is half of the state’s gross domestic product (GDP). This value is only expected to increase as a result of the pandemic.

We must also recognise the economic and financial impact the pandemic has on marginalised communities and the need for more flexible working arrangements. The Royal Commission is calling on workplaces to ensure people with a disability are provided the equipment they need to work from home, to ensure they can continue to earn an income while also reducing the risk of infection.

We echo the call by Asian Women at Work and MCWH to ensure casual workers are supported and alleviated from making the impossible choice between their health and jobs. As stated by MCWH, loss of employment is a ‘breach of visa requirement and can result in ‘deportation for migrant women, partners and families, without government intervention’.

In response to these issues Gender Equity Victoria’s has created a list of 10 Things the Government can do now to address the impacts of COVID-19 on women and gender diverse people. Read more at https://www.genvic.org.au/ and see the list of 90 organisations who have endorsed the statement.