How has pandemic policy affected women historically?
Before COVID-19, the dynamic between disease outbreaks and the impact of policies on women was studied most extensively during the 2014–2016 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, the 2019 Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the 2015–2016 Zika virus outbreak in parts of Central and South America. During the first of these Ebola outbreaks, maternal mortality in Sierra Leone rose, as maternity facilities closed while resources were diverted to support the emergency response, and women with a suspected Ebola infection were denied care. The impacts of Zika were disproportionately borne by women in a way that was heavily influenced by the causes of the disease, with women taking more responsibility for avoiding pregnancy or reducing the risk of infection while pregnant. Some women were also caring for infants who were exposed to the Zika virus in utero and consequently developed microcephaly. This contributed to a greater risk of mental health conditions among women.
These gendered dimensions of outbreaks are reflective of wider structural inequalities that systemically disadvantage or fail to prioritise and advance women’s interests. Such inequalities are exacerbated during outbreaks, and there is a clear role for policy in managing the potential impacts on gender equality.
How can we protect and improve gender equality in future crises?
Global guidance on gender-inclusive policymaking in outbreak preparedness, response and recovery is limited. This is perhaps reflective of broader structural inequalities and systemic barriers for women, including the unequal representation of women in leadership and government roles.
The UK experienced high rates of infection and death from COVID-19. However, the country was ranked as highly prepared for a pandemic in the Global Health Security Index 2019. The experiences and evidence from the past two years suggest that this did not translate into an effective and gender-inclusive public health response to COVID-19.
The long-term impacts of COVID-19 on women are likely to continue to emerge as the pandemic continues, and they may not be fully understood for years to come. This underscores the importance of taking women’s interests into consideration in policy- and decision-making during pandemic preparedness, response and recovery – both now and in the future.
The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of The Health Policy Partnership.