Covid-19 has shaken the whole world and, for most people, turned our ‘normal’ lives into something entirely different.
While the word ‘unprecedented’ has been used in over and over in articles and news reports, it’s hard to come up with a more appropriate word for the current situation we are living in, or the impact it is having on all our lives.
For me personally, the lockdown is slowly easing and schools are beginning to open again, (at least here in the Netherlands) but it is still surreal to think over what has happened over the last 3 months. It has certainly been a rollercoaster; being home with two young kids, a husband stuck abroad, trying to work as entrepreneur, not knowing how the situation would affect the volume of work coming in.
As we can all acknowledge, the pandemic has affected us all in different ways and thrown up new challenges that many of us never expected to deal with. But it is also affecting certain groups and communities far more than others – and this is an aspect that we must acknowledge and address as we look to establish the ‘new normal’ for 2020 and beyond.
The challenges affecting women
As a diversity advocate, and as a female entrepreneur and mother, I am acutely aware of the impact on women in particular.
Of course, everyone has had fears about their health and families, but also about losing their livelihoods. But, in many households, women are still the primary caregiver for children (and also for elderly relatives) and are now having to juggle home-schooling and childcare alongside their paid jobs and other responsibilities.
Pictures of perfectly organised home-schooling schedules, family crafts and activities and happy home-school kids have swamped social media. This has created added pressure for women to be the best teacher, the best mother and entertainer while continuing to exercise, start a new hobby and learn new skills. It certainly added to my frustration. All of this, often alongside limited time, resources and opportunities to do any of these things.
The stress and emotions that have come with it have, for many, been extraordinary. Research from Lean IN revealed that women with full-time jobs, a partner and children spend a combined 71 hours a week on child/elder care and household chores. As a result, 25% of women surveyed have symptoms of severe anxiety.
While Covid-19 itself does not discriminate, women (who often earn less, save less and hold insecure jobs) are being disproportionately impacted by the economic consequences of Covid-19. Research has shown that men are more likely to work in a job that can be performed remotely and women make up a huge majority of industries that have been negatively impacted, or shut down altogether, such as retail, travel and hospitality. While some have benefitted from furlough schemes in certain countries, many are at risk or have already lost their jobs. With the increased family needs at home it is more difficult for women to find alternative employment or income streams.
Single parents have obviously been hit much harder than two-parent families and a large majority of this group are women. Even if they have not lost their jobs, with schools and childcare closed, they cannot leave their kids alone. From own experience and scores of other mothers, it is close to impossible to work at home with small children who require constant attention.
The most vulnerable are even more exposed
Pandemics expose vulnerabilities in social and economic systems and can increase the already intense strain on vulnerable groups and communities.
Gender-based violence has seen a huge spiking due to women being stuck at home with abusive partners as people have been made to restricted their movements and isolate themselves. The services to support victims have also been disrupted, often giving victims no means of escape or help. It was heart warming to see some of the social media initiatives to offer victims an alternative way to make a cry for help. Certainly people have shown an increased care for others – physical distancing rather than social distancing!
Besides the positive effects though, the negative effects seem greater. More broadly, there will undoubtedly be an enormous and likely long term impact on vulnerable communities, especially in developing countries. For instance, the UN has emphasized that the issues such as ‘Period poverty’ are exacerbated during crises like Covid-19, because of shortages of menstrual products and lack of access to safe, private toilets.
Also, school closures in developing countries have the most effect on girls, who may not be able to return when schools re-open, in part because girls often tend to take care of the family and the sick. Also, from the Ebola epidemic we saw a rise in teenage-pregnancy rates and an increase in childbirth deaths as maternity and family care services were disrupted while the health focus was on tackling the epidemic.
While UN Women hoped that this year would be ground-breaking for reaching gender equality, the spread of the pandemic risks rolling back the limited gains made in the past decade. Research shows that the Ebola crisis, Zika and SARS had long-lasting effects on gender equality. We must hope that this will not be the case with Covid-19, but I fear that it is highly likely and it will be important to learn lessons from these previous crises and work to mitigate as much of the impact as possible.
Governments cannot ignore the gender specific effects while formulating policy responses and is a strong need to include women and representatives from vulnerable groups to provide input and guidance to make sure their needs are addressed. The current representation is painfully low.
The UN recently created a policy brief focusing on each of these issues while outlining priority measures to recover from the various impacts. As it states in the brief: “COVID-19 is not only a challenge for global health systems, but also a test of our human spirit. Recovery must lead to a more equal world that is more resilient to future crises”
The silver lining and the road ahead
The good news for those in more developed countries is that the forced working from home measures during the pandemic have accelerated the shift to flexible workplaces, which will be beneficial to women in the long term.
The shift to remote working has shown that employees can still perform their jobs well away from the office environment and that having more flexible working patterns can be a benefit in helping staff to achieve a better work:life balance, which in turn can help both wellbeing and productivity. These changes are likely to stay to some degree well past the pandemic itself and may even allow more opportunities for women, especially those who are parents, to seek out roles that may not have been as accessible to them before. For those women who have lost their jobs, perhaps the chance to take a step into the entrepreneurial world may now even become a possibility.
As a payments industry, the pandemic has also helped to accelerate innovations that will better support financial inclusion, (zakat) donations to causes that support countries and communities most affected by Covid-19 and more digital customer journeys. This effort should help vulnerable and underserved communities have better access to financial services and payment methods, even for those in isolation or more remote locations. Let’s hope those efforts will contribute to women holding a more equal part of wealth or women in developing countries being financially included, to ensure any hit will become less next time and we can minimize the gendered effects of any future pandemic.
As we go through the ensuing phases of recovery from the pandemic, it will be vital to do all we can, at an individual, business and industry level to understand and adapt to the needs of people that have been impacted by the virus pandemic and also take forward the positive lessons and skills we have picked up along the way. The world is not the same anymore. While the negative effects will undoubtedly last for some time to come, there is much we can do to ease the impact and come out the other side stronger and better for it. As a first step governments and health organisations need to ensure the voices of women and other underrepresented groups are heard. We as individuals need to ensure that any informal communities build during these times are nurtured. Like I called out before, let’s continue this social closeness even after physical distancing is over.