IN March of 2020, Uddhav Thackeray, the chief minister of the state of Maharashtra in India, spoke directly to his male constituents about the emerging COVID-19 crisis.

“I am at home listening to Mrs. [Chief Minister],” he said, referring to his wife, Rashmi. “You listen to your home minister.”

It was a significant message in a patriarchal society where women’s voices have traditionally been muted in the political, economic, and public discourse. Leading by example, Thackeray was acknowledging that women would have a key role to play in encouraging the adoption of public health precautions. And he seemed to anticipate that they might be more conscientious than men in responding to the new viral threat.

A year on, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to rage across the globe, research suggests that Thackeray may have been onto something. A recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences concluded that women are more likely to take COVID-19 seriously — and more likely to comply with public health recommendations like mask wearing and social distancing. The researchers surveyed more than 21 000 individuals across eight different countries last March and found that 59% of female respondents considered COVID-19 to be a very serious health problem, compared with just 49% of men. Women were also 6 percentage points more likely to agree with proposed social distancing measures.

It’s worth noting that the study considered gender only in binary terms, rather than along a spectrum, and that the authors were not able to single out an underlying mechanism. In an email, two of the study’s authors, Vincenzo Galasso and Paola Profeta of Bocconi University in Milan, stressed the need for further research. Nevertheless, the trend held across all eight countries, and a follow-up survey in April yielded similar results. The authors also say their results are consistent with another much-discussed observation: Women-led countries have been among the most effective in responding to the pandemic.

This makes it all the more discouraging that, at virtually every level of society, women have been inadequately represented in policy and decision-making surrounding COVID-19.

A survey of 30 countries conducted by the social justice organisation CARE International found that, on average, only 24% of COVID-19 task force members were women. In conflict-affected countries, the number fell to 18%, according to UN Women, the United Nations group dedicated to gender equality. Unfortunately, this is nothing new. As UN Women also notes, women’s social ties and skills often go underutilised in times of crisis and in peace-building measures.

Women-led countries like Germany, New Zealand, Taiwan, and Iceland have been exemplary in their response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“In recovering better — we must not lose sight of this leadership that women can provide alongside men,” UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed said in May. Yet, despite the warning, the world seems to have done exactly that.

There is no shortage of ways to include gender in our pandemic response, amplify the voices of women, and capitalise on their influence in households and communities. For one, we can embrace gender-based public health policies and communication, as Profeta and Galasso advocate. This might mean including gender-related questions in analyses of COVID-19 impacts, ensuring that data collection plans allow for gender disaggregation, and considering the different needs of women and men in vulnerable populations.

We must recognise that the pandemic has affected women in unique ways. With social distancing measures in place, many women found themselves trapped with abusive partners, increasing their risk of intimate partner violence. Sexual and reproductive health services were disrupted in many places. Around the world, women faced increased risks of early and forced marriage, and of being victimised by sex trafficking. Inadequate representation at all levels of decision-making meant that many of these gender-based impacts of the pandemic went unrecognised longer than they should have, and that the response was slower than it could have been.

Women — who tend to serve as primary caregivers to children and the elderly, and who often hold considerable influence in their homes and communities — could also play a key role in promoting compliance with COVID-19 protocols. Even simple behavioral changes could have untold impact. Mask-wearing mandates alone reduced the number of new COVID-19 infections by around 45%, one German study found.

As governments around the world continue to order lockdowns and quarantines — and as many countries move into a new, vaccine-rollout phase of the pandemic — it will be important to engage women, especially marginalized women, in our public health interventions. A more inclusive COVID-19 response will not only help us address a myriad of gender-based issues, it just might help us all navigate a quicker path to a new normal.

Disha Shetty is an independent science journalist based in Pune, India. She writes on health, environment, and gender, among other subjects.

This article was originally published on Undark. Read the original article.


The statements or opinions expressed in this article reflect the views of the authors and do not represent the official policy of the AMA, the MJA or InSight+ unless so stated.


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4 thoughts on “Why the world’s pandemic response needs more female voices

  1. Randal says:

    I must also take issue with the author’s transition from women’s issues (notably in India) to their potential role in mask-wearing protocols in particular — yes, *people* can (and do) play a key role in promoting compliance with pandemic protocols.

    But that is not always a good thing — the author selectively reports on a single retrospective study in Germany that found an unusually large reduction in model-estimated infections in regions following mask mandates without controlling for what would presumably be other corresponding changes in protocols and public behavior (and a finding that is contradicted by time-correlated infection rate changes found across Germany as a whole).

    A fairly thorough summary of relevant mask research can be found here:

    The totality of evidence shows that there is no conclusive evidence supporting the use of masks in the general public. Meanwhile, it would be sexist to imply that women were more likely to blindly submit to a recognized authority dishing out protocols. Do women independently critique evidence better than men? IMO research on this pandemic has little to say about perceived patriarchies, real or otherwise.

  2. Randal says:

    This article is based on a false premise — there is no conclusive evidence that nations with women leaders have done any better statistically with respect to pandemic outcomes. The ‘studies’ suggesting that there is such evidence have been shown to have serious methodological problems, most notably poor/vague outcome measures and inexcusable selection bias (e.g., looking at only a subset of OECD countries to generalize for the world). The claim is obviously popular, having been spread wide and far among the left-leaning MSM, reported with sleight of hand (e.g., as if a non-statistically significant difference implies a difference) with yet more selectiob bias — virtually no reporting (and certainly no refutation of) the methodolically superior studies showing no meaningful difference in outcome.

    The claim is analogous to one that didn’t gain as much traction last year, though still believed and propagated by a few activist media: that somehow women have been bearing the ‘greater burden’ of covid, while men have been dying at higher rates. Go figure.

  3. Andrew Nielsen says:

    Fancy the author noting that a defect in a study was that gender was recorded as being binary. If it’s okay to point out where women-led countries do a good job, would it be okay to point out where women-led countries do a bad job? Or would that be sexist?

  4. Anonymous says:

    Now that gender is completely fluid, it is surely pointless and divisive picking out arbitrary way-stops (e.g. women) along a continuous spectrum.
    It is now appropriate to be fully inclusive, and in harmony just refer to ‘people’.

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