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What’s missing from COVID-19 management? Women.

Full recovery won't happen without including gender disparities that reveal women have been harder hit economically and otherwise
Illustrative: A woman wears face mask for fear of the coronavirus as she attends a bar mitzvah, at the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest site, in Jerusalem's Old City on March 19, 2020. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)
Illustrative: A woman wears face mask for fear of the coronavirus as she attends a bar mitzvah, at the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest site, in Jerusalem's Old City on March 19, 2020. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

Israel’s leaders have boasted that the country’s handling of the coronavirus crisis is among the best in the world. At least in one absolutely vital respect it is lagging far behind: a gender-based assessment of the COVID-19 crisis. As distress rises and uncertainty prevails, it is increasingly apparent that critical information is lacking and that without a systematic and differentiated analysis of the pandemic no serious recovery can be designed and carried out. This cannot be done without sex-disaggregated data and the full incorporation of gender concerns into policy formulation and implementation.

The accumulation of knowledge on the spread of the coronavirus in Israel has only recently begun to take into account specific sectors (most notably, the ultra-Orthodox), geographic locations (especially in the periphery), age categories (particularly the elderly) and socioeconomic factors (low income groups in high-density residential areas). What it has not yet done systematically is to examine COVID-19 related evidence on the one distinction that spans all communities, locales and socioeconomic categories: gender. A brief look at the little that is known is more than instructive.

Israel, much like most of the world, is experiencing significant gender-differentiated coronavirus-related mortality rates. Of the more than 100 deaths recorded to date—most in the over 80 age group in which women constitute a marked majority—men account for 54% of fatalities; women for 46% (confirming the comparative pattern). The precise reasons for this trend have yet to be determined, although a closer look at these gender differences might be useful in controlling rates of infection and expediting the treatment of its fallout.

There are also clear gender differences in the economic impact of the present situation. Twenty-five percent of Israeli workers have either been put on unpaid leave or laid off during the past two months. Of these, estimates are that between 60% and 70% are women (in the United States according to the U.S. Department of Labor the average is about 60%, similar to that recorded in Europe). This figure is hardly surprising: before the outbreak of the virus, women constituted not only 55% of the country’s unemployed, their income was only 65% of that of men in equivalent positions, their job security was significantly lower than their male counterparts and their poverty levels higher. Just when the centrality of women in caregiving has increased, their economic plight has grown (this is especially true in poorer areas, among single-parent households and within low-income groups).

Unfortunately, gender-based economic discrimination today goes even further. Emergency measures have been invoked to override legal protections of pregnant employees and new mothers on maternity leave. Arab women, in any event severely underrepresented in the workforce, have been especially affected. So, too, have women asylum-seekers, who, in the best of circumstances, have suffered from substantial economic discrimination. And, because women are at the bottom of the economic ladder (many are part-time workers or only recently joined the workforce), they are the most likely to comprise a substantial majority of those 20% who will not be allowed to return to their current positions in the aftermath of the crisis. The gender distinctions in the economic sphere threaten to limit much of the prospects for progress in the months ahead.

Gender differences in the allocation of the care burden have consequently grown. Women, including those holding full-time jobs, have always been disproportionately responsible for childcare and for household chores. Even with homebound partners, many of whom are sharing these tasks today, the added burden of caregiving, home-schooling, as well as cleaning and cooking in overactive households is still mostly borne on the shoulders of women. If the posts, clips and social network traffic are any indication, many are reeling under the added burden. And, in sharp contrast, the plight of elderly women, the vast majority of whom live alone, has also grown.

Women have also suffered disproportionately from the ongoing lockdown. Violence against women has spiked throughout the country during the past couple of months. The police record a rise of 16% in complaints of domestic violence in March 2020 in comparison to last year. The welfare authorities have recorded a 700% (!) rise in sex-based abuse during this period. The hotlines of the Center for Victims of Sexual Violence are ringing off the hook. The shelters for battered women are woefully overextended. The longer families are required to stay at home, the danger for women rises.

This still skimpy sex-disaggregated picture implies that the nature and extent of the COVID-19 crisis is hopelessly gender-skewed. It is now abundantly evident that progress in containing and effectively reducing the spread of the infection depends much more on a gender-sensitive approach than previously imagined. This is not only the job of the 43 women’s organizations and feminist initiatives which have come together to spearhead such an approach (for more information, email Women Lead womentakingpowerisrael@gmail.com). It is primarily that of decisionmakers. Israel can and must follow UN guidelines in this regard, producing much more data on the gender aspects of the present pandemic, tailoring messages on a gender basis to differentiated social groups and allocating resources–such as sanitary products–accordingly (for rich comparative sources see see here). Failure to do so will prolong recovery and impede necessary reforms.

In the waning days of the Passover holiday and the accompanying closure, Israel is now beginning to examine options for moving beyond the medical emergency. Its so-called “exit strategy” foresees a phased process involving a gradual return to daily life and then the institution of a longer-term recovery process. This rearrangement of priorities cannot be meaningfully realized without the conscious adoption of a gender-mainstreaming strategy which takes into account the glaring gender distinctions in the spread of the virus and its socioeconomic ramifications.

Yet at the moment the handling of the transition, as of the management of the crisis, is an almost entirely male affair. The planning of the next steps has been placed in the hands of a National Security Council taskforce of experts, all of whom are Jewish men (two women can be found on the list of research assistants). It’s as if women have nothing to contribute to this process—just as they are consistently shunted to the sidelines on military matters. But despite the prevailing rhetoric adopted by Israel’s leaders, the coronavirus threat is not a war. It is a pandemic that affects all the population indiscriminately. The defense establishment has no comparative advantage in managing its various manifestations nor does it have any added value in determining the painful process of recovery. This is a civilian challenge that demands a civilian response. And no such action will be forthcoming without the full inclusion of women in the decision-making process.

Who is involved in defining policy at this juncture is critical to determining its content. Women have been at the forefront of combatting the COVID-19 disease. Worldwide, they make up between 60%-70% of the medical workers involved in treating the virus. In Israel, women are especially prominent in leading the dedicated coronavirus teams in the hospitals and the community (although they have been sadly missing among the variety of experts appearing in the media and in the forums charged with handling strategy). Israel has consequently purposefully shunted aside their accumulated experience and risks being bereft of their substantial insights. This is not only patently irresponsible; it is downright stupid (see the record of counties headed by women such as Germany, Finland, Iceland, New Zealand and Denmark in this regard). Any serious attempt to resurrect the economy, mend social relations, increase solidarity and narrow inequalities requires their active involvement in planning future steps.

The coronavirus pandemic—with all its massive physical, economic, social and mental discombobulation—is thus also very much a political malady which has magnified inequalities and now threatens to prolong recovery, skew results and perpetuate inequities. It is not too late to rectify the glaring power imbalance by actively incorporating women from all segments of the population into the common struggle to overcome COVID-19 and its effects. The dangers of the coronavirus do contain immense opportunities—but only if we are wise enough to identify and maximize them for the common good.

About the Author
Professor Naomi Chazan, former Deputy Speaker of the Knesset and professor (emerita) of political science at the Hebrew University, is co-director of WIPS, the Center for the Advancement of Women in the Public Sphere at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute.
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