Gender stereotypes plaguing the pandemic response

Novel Coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 Credit NIAID NIH
This scanning electron microscope image shows SARS-CoV-2 (round blue objects) emerging from the surface of cells cultured in the lab. SARS-CoV-2, also known as 2019-nCoV, is the virus that causes COVID-19. The virus shown was isolated from a patient in the U.S. Image captured and colorized at NIAID's Rocky Mountain Laboratories (RML) in Hamilton, Montana.NIAID

As per a recent news, a senior bureaucrat in Lucknow said, “The increase in female infection (of COVID-19) ratio is a clear indication that women are going out in the market and not following the precautions [for COVID-19 prevention]”. This statement is not only devoid of any scientific evidence but also reeks of a deep-rooted patriarchal mindset. It also assumes as if men are ‘following precautions’.

If we look at the data cited in the same news, 70.49% males and 29.51% females tested positive for coronavirus (perhaps in July) as compared to May 2020 when 74.6% males and 25.4% females had tested positive) in the Uttar Pradesh state of India.

Well, the above data shows that, both in May and July, the number of men who got infected with the virus was more than two to three times the number of women. So, going by the bureaucrat’s conjecture, it indicates that it is the men who are not following the precautions.

And the markets are open for all genders. If there is any gender-segregated data on the number of people visiting market places, we would love to hear about it. At any given time, we find more men than women loitering on the city roads. And a far greater number of men (than women) without masks.

According to a news report published in The Hindu, there were only 7 states – Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Telangana, Karnataka, Bihar, Odisha and Jharkhand – which have reported gender-segregated data. It is good to know that now Uttar Pradesh also has gender-segregated data on COVID-19 infections. We also need to know gender-segregated data on case fatality rate in the state.

A lot of scientific discussions are taking place globally on the age and sex-specific impact of the pandemic. According to one study done in India, while males share a higher burden (66%) of COVID-19 infection than females (34%), women are at greater risk of dying from it and the case fatality rate in them is higher (3.3%) as compared to that in males (2.9%). This is contrary to the global trend as many studies have shown that in most countries more men are dying from COVID-19 than women – partly because women tend to have stronger immune systems. According to the lead author of the Indian study (as told to a newspaper): “The social determinants, like access to healthcare and general health and nutrition status, which are generally worse for women in India than their male counterparts could explain these differences that defy the global trend.”

It would do the common public a lot of good if our learned bureaucrat(s) got serious about the social and health inequities plaguing the Indian women instead of pointing fingers (and dumping entire blame to bring infection to the family) at them for ‘going out in the market’, as if that is the only thing they do.

Are we forgetting that women form a sizeable part of our frontline warriors against COVID-19 in the form of nurses, doctors, other healthcare providers, police officers, vegetable sellers, other vendors, bureaucrats, politicians, and a range of other roles they are increasingly shouldering (in addition to their routine household chores) despite such archaic obstacles? Even when COVID-19 positive asymptomatic people opt for home isolation, it is often the women who are taking additional responsibilities as carers.

The fiction that ‘unpaid care work is not work’ is exposed. But are we finally going to recognize and respect the role of women and girls as primary caregivers? Or will we continue to turn a blind eye on the increased workload they have to deal with in addition to being put to heightened risks of sexual and other forms of gender-based violence during the lockdown? It is now a well-known fact that violence against women has increased during the lockdown.

It is high time we got serious about building our response to the pandemic on science-based analysis & interpretation of data and not on off-the-hand remarks entrenched in patriarchy.

Yes, we need more women in the workforce at every level of governance. Only then can we expect gender-sensitive approaches and solidarity towards each other. That is why the only possible future is a feminist future where all genders live in solidarity with each other.

The United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has very rightly said: “COVID-19 has exposed the lie that free markets can deliver healthcare for all, the fiction that unpaid care work isn’t work, the delusion that we live in a post-racist world. We are all floating on the same sea, but some are in superyachts and others clinging to drifting debris.”

Shobha Shukla

(Shobha Shukla is the founding Managing Editor of CNS (Citizen News Service) and is a noted health and gender justice advocate. She is a former senior faculty of Loreto Convent College and current Coordinator of Asia Pacific Media Network to end TB & tobacco and prevent NCDs.

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