Yes, Coronavirus Is A War. And Women Are On The Frontline

Women will be affected in the long term by the post-virus economic meltdown. (Photo: AFP via Getty Images)

When Caroline Criado-Perez emailed her MP, Conservative John Howell, to follow up on the urgent need for data relating to gender in the NHS’s coronavirus symptom survey, she received a promising reply.

“Actually Caroline I have many more important things to deal with than this. I am afraid it will have to wait.”

But women can’t wait. Although data shows that men make up 77% of critical cases in the UK (based on 2,249 cases of the disease, excluding Scotland), women are far more likely to be exposed to the virus because they do the majority of so-called frontline work in nursing and social care. 

Data from Autonomy found that there are over three million people in jobs with a high level of risk of exposure — and 77% of them are women. Over a million of these workers are low paid, and a staggering 98% of those are women.

As Green MP Caroline Lucas rightly responded to Criado-Perez, “sex-disaggregated data is critical to helping us better understand both the transmission and effect of the disease.”

The death toll is delivered from both the Office for National Statistics and the Department of Health and Social Care — and it has been scrappy at best. It is released at different times and calculated by different metrics. There is no breakdown in terms of gender or ethnicity. This is despite the fact that structural inequality in the UK, as Runnymede Trust deputy director Zubaida Haque explains, means BAME people are disproportionately likely to die.

With close to 8,000 people having died in the UK so far due to the virus, we are constantly told that it does not discriminate. But it does, in a very real way. As Emily Maitlis was praised for saying on Newsnight, coronavirus is “not a great leveller” — her full speech is well worth a watch.

 While Boris Johnson was rightly rushed into intensive care this week, a 36-year-old black woman called Kayla Williams from Peckham was not allowed to go to hospital despite crippling chest and stomach pains because she was deemed “not a priority”. She died, and her husband had to self-isolate in the house she died in.

How will we, as the chancellor Rishi Sunak described it, “right the ship that is our economy” once this is over? It is the most economically insecure and vulnerable who will be hit hardest.

Coronavirus not only discriminates in terms of who is exposed to it and who is more likely to die, but also who will be most affected in the long term by the post-virus economic meltdown. In an economic crisis, how will people working in low paid jobs (69% of them women), in part-time work (74% women), or on zero-hour contracts (54% of them women) survive? 

The EU commission estimates Europe will enter a deeper recession than in 2009’s financial crisis. The UK’s initial £330billion support package was worth 15% of our GDP, and that was just the start of it. How will we, as the chancellor Rishi Sunak described it, “right the ship that is our economy” once this is over? It is the most economically insecure and vulnerable who will be hit hardest. With hindsight, Theresa May’s 2018 promise to end austerity feels like a cruel joke. 

Lockdown is likely to be extended on Monday. Victims of domestic violence have now been stuck at home with their perpetrator for three weeks, and the National Domestic Abuse Helpline has reported a 25% increase in calls. The government has put nothing in place to help these women. 

However, there have been some promising hints in recent weeks that we will start to value people’s work properly. For example, a recent editorial from the Financial Times said, “Governments will have to accept a more active role in the economy. They must see public services as investments rather than liabilities, and look for ways to make labour markets less insecure.” Another glimmer of hope was a report that the home secretary Priti Patel might reconsider the term “low-skilled” in her points-based immigration system. 

The Women’s Budget Group has a neat package of recommendations, including extending furlough schemes for part-time workers, increasing sick pay as well as the carers allowance (currently a paltry £1.89 per hour), increasing child benefit to £50 a week (a maximum of £35 per week currently), scrap the heinous two-child limit (where women have to prove they’ve been raped or abused to get money for a third child), and channel the tampon tax to prevent domestic violence. 

It would also be a massive step in the right direction if around 1,000 Northern Irish women no longer had to travel to the UK every year to get abortions and could take pills at home instead.

Perhaps the lack of diversity at the top is one of the reasons that women have been overlooked thus far. As former home secretary Amber Rudd tweeted: “Why are there no senior women in the “war cabinet” or used to convey those critical messages? Equality means better decisions. Don’t pack the women away during a crisis.” Even Priti Patel appears to have gone into hiding.

With a global recession looming and a clear spike in poverty and domestic violence, you could argue that defeating the coronavirus is simply winning the battle.  Until we change the way we value women and make them an equal part of our society, we have not won the war. 

Rachael Revesz is acting opinion editor at Huffington Post UK

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This article originally appeared on HuffPost.