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Women Are Bearing the Brunt of Coronavirus Disruption

Kat Anderson
March 15, 2020

In strictly medical terms, the new coronavirus seems to hit men harder than women. In an analysis of nearly 45,000 cases in China, the death rate was 2.8% for men, compared with 1.7% for women. And men made up a slight majority of the infected, at 51%. One theory is that men, particularly in China, are more likely to smoke cigarettes, so have weaker lungs.

Cardiovascular disease, which is highly correlated with coronavirus fatalities, is also more prevalent in men. But as the virus spreads globally, it appears women are bearing the brunt of the social and economic disruption.

The vast majority of nurses, flight attendants, teachers and service industry workers are female, and their jobs put them on the front lines of the outbreak. At home, women still do more caretaking, so when the virus closes schools, restricts travel, and puts aged relatives at risk, they have more to do.

“The challenge of the emergency really puts additional strain on existing inequalities,” says Laura Addati, a policy specialist in women and economic empowerment for the International Labor Organization. “If there’s not already an egalitarian sharing of child care or housework, it will be women who are responsible for remote school, for ensuring there’s food and supplies, for coping with this crisis.”

Eight out of 10 nurses are women, perhaps the most extreme example of how this crisis squeezes women at home and at work. Eleanor Holroyd, a professor of nursing at the Chinese University of Hong Kong in 2003, collected the first-person accounts of student nurses during the SARS epidemic. They detailed the confusion, anxiety, and stress of long days with patients and of watching colleagues fall ill. Some slept in the hospital, both to care for sick and to protect their own families.

“There’s this idea that if there’s a gap in the system, the nurses will fill it. The duty is to be ever-present and visible and offering empathy and care,” says Holroyd, who now teaches at New Zealand’s Auckland University of Technology. “Add that to anything else, a sick child or parent, or a husband or partner out of work, the very uncertain nature of an epidemic, and it can be hard to hold on.”


A woman helps a child wear a mask at Haikou Meilan International Airport in China’s Hainan province on Jan. 25.


As part of the containment efforts, 15 countries have closed schools nationwide, affecting more than 300 million kids, according to a March 10 estimate from Unesco. For most families, that constitutes a crisis in its own right. In Hong Kong, where schools have been closed since Feb. 3, many parents—mostly moms—have become de facto homeschoolers, managing remote classes and emailed assignments along with their own professional responsibilities.

On Facebook and in group chats, they troubleshoot glitches with Zoom or Google classroom and swap tips for dealing with stir-crazy kids. There is a lot of crying face emoji and #winetime.


Some companies have begun to realize that the spread of Covid-19, as the disease caused by the virus is called, has also brought extra pressures for a lot of their workers. In Japan, Pasona Group Inc., a human resources service provider, gave employees the freedom to work from home or bring their kids to the office. Workers at beauty company Shiseido Co. can take up to 10 days of paid leave to care for their children while schools are closed, and they won’t lose pay if they have to work slightly shorter days.

In the U.S., labor leaders, including the heads of big unions for flight attendants, teachers, and nurses, have been using the coronavirus epidemic to draw attention to the fact that America is alone among developed countries without mandated paid sick leave. “No one should have to go to work sick because they are worried about being penalized or missing a day’s pay,” says Mary Kay Henry, the president of the Service Employees International Union.

Advocates for equality hope this global health crisis will result in a more even distribution of professional and domestic caretaking. Before the U.S. entered World War II in 1940, 28% of American women worked outside the home; five years later, 37% did, a percentage that ticked upwards for decades. In Japan, the tsunami and nuclear meltdown of March 2011 drew new attention to the needs of single dads in the country and prompted broader social emphasis on active fathering.

It “changed men's sense of value in housework participation,” says Tetsuya Ando, head of advocacy organization Fathering Japan. “The coronavirus will have a similar social impact.”

If so, whether the changes persist is another question. In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, necessity pushed more women into the workforce, conferring more child-care responsibilities on newly unemployed men, but as the economy improved, most households reverted to the pre-crisis division of labor, says the ILO’s Addati. The coronavirus crisis is an opportunity to challenge entrenched social dynamics in a way that benefits both women and men.

“We have to think of ourselves as all being care providers and all being care recipients,” she says. “It should be our responsibility to make sure everyone can take care of himself, his loved ones, and make sure the workplace is safe for everybody.”


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