COVID-19 is killing more men. But the social and economic consequences of the pandemic are landing hardest on women.
By: Gabriela Salas
In country after country, population after population, the trend seen earlier this year seems to be true: women appear to be less susceptible to COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2. But even as women face less risk from the disease itself, they face much more risk from the social and economic devastation that the disease has wreaked, highlighting the deep inequalities in our economic, social, and health care systems.
Women, and particularly women of color, are more likely to work in businesses that are deemed to be “essential” and in the hardest-hit industries. They are more likely to shoulder the burden of parenting and other caregiving responsibilities. And for women of color particularly, the pandemic is exacerbating longstanding challenges from social determinants of health (SDOH).
The results are devastating, and the Trump-Pence Administration isn’t helping women by increasing barriers to essential reproductive health care.
Essential Workers are More Likely to be Female
In response to the pandemic, many states enacted stay-at-home orders for everyone other than employees of businesses that were specifically designated as “essential.” The list includes health care facilities (like hospitals and clinics), grocery and drug stores, home health care companies, and nursing home facilities.
Around half of this essential workforce is made up of women and, in some industries, women make up the majority of workers (see chart). For example, women comprise more than two-thirds of the U.S. health care workforce, putting them in the front lines of the pandemic. Women also comprise more than two-thirds of social workers (78%), more than half of essential retail employees (53%), and more than one-third (34%) of delivery and warehouse employees.
These workers are less able to self-isolate than those in non-essential businesses, increasing their risk of infection.
Women Are More Likely to Work in the Hardest-Hit Industries
Women also comprise the majority of workers in industries and occupations that have been devastated by COVID-19 closures, including restaurants, daycare centers, the hospitality industry, and beauty salons.
The Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) compared payroll data from February and March 2020 and estimated that women suffered approximately 60% of pandemic-related job losses. A National Women’s Law Center (NWLC) analysis also suggests that women are disproportionately experiencing job losses within specific employment sectors. For example, women held 77% of education jobs pre-pandemic, but account for 83% of job losses in that sector; women held 48% of retail trade jobs pre-pandemic, but have experienced 61% of lost retail jobs. Job losses are especially prevalent amongst Black and Latinx women.
As a result, for the first time since the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics started reporting employment data by gender, in 1948, women’s unemployment rate climbed to double digits. In April 2020, women’s unemployment rate reached 16.2%, nearly 3 points higher than men’s; the disparity is even worse in specific job sectors, including hospitality, restaurants, and retail.
Nonetheless, many women are still hard hit by pandemic-related economic crisis and job losses, including Black women, who have a 13.5% unemployment rate; Latinx women, who have a 14% unemployment rate; and women with disabilities, who have a 17.1% unemployment rate.
Workers in hardest-hit industries are more likely to have lost their jobs during the pandemic, increasing their risk of poverty and need to rely on often-inadequate unemployment insurance.
Women Are More Likely to be Caregivers
In ordinary times, women often have two full-time jobs: paid work and unpaid caregiving responsibilities at home. COVID is making it hard, if not impossible, to rely on paid professionals, schools, and daycare centers for caregiving assistance — as a result, many women are struggling to balance jobs, parenting, and other caregiving tasks.
For many working mothers, the reopening of states has only compounded their problems. With many schools moving to online-only classes, many camps closed, and a national shortage of child care facilities, women lack good options for child care. In May, about half of all U.S. daycares were closed and experts forecast that there could be up to a 20% decline in available spots once centers opened again. If women have to leave their jobs or shift to part-time work as a result, it is likely to be hard to re-enter the workforce at their previous level in the future.
This may be one reason why, in a national poll conducted in March, women were more likely than men to say that COVID-19 has disrupted their lives.
Women of Color Face Additional Burdens from COVID-19
Black and Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC) faced disproportionate and very high disease burdens long before COVID-19 arrived as a result of social determinants of health (SDOH) that heighten BIPOC communities’ health risks and hamper their life outcomes. SDOH are major drivers behind challenges to accessing health care and insurance; exposure to unsafe neighborhoods, including pollution, crowded housing, and contaminated drinking water; and lack of access to good jobs with health insurance. The health disparities that have emerged during the pandemic are another stark reminder of the unconscionable impact of racism, poverty, and other SDOH.
BIPOC Are Suffering Disproportionately From the Pandemic
As of August, Black Americans continue to experience the highest COVID-19 mortality rates of any racial/ethnic group — about 3.6 times higher than whites’. Indigenous Americans also have disproportionately high mortality rates, experiencing 2.2% of COIVD-19 deaths, twice their share of the U.S. population (1%). The graph illustrates COVID-related death rates by race and ethnicity as of August 4, 2020.
Black and Indigenous Women of Color (BIWOC) are more likely to be unemployed and face challenges in accessing health care. While Black and Latinx women’s unemployment rates fell slightly between April and July, they still exceed both the overall female (10.5%) and male unemployment rates (9.4%).
The pandemic has resulted in an estimated 27 million people losing employer-provided health insurance from the beginning of March to the end of April. BIWOC, low-income women, immigrant women, and LGBTQIA+ people are at a greater risk of being uninsured because they are more likely to work in jobs without employer-provided insurance, to become unemployed due to COVID-19, and to lose their insurance coverage as a result.
Combined, the economic challenges of poverty or unemployment; the health risks from being uninsured or underinsured; and the far-reaching negative impacts of SDOH create complicated and dangerous conditions for BIWOC.
Women Face Challenges to Getting Reproductive Health Services During COVID-19
Adding insult to injury, the COVID-19 pandemic and related recession are creating challenges for women who need reproductive care. At exactly the moment when many people want to delay getting pregnant, the pandemic is making it harder to afford birth control, see a provider for contraceptive services, and access abortion care. One in three women report having experienced either a cancelation or delay in getting reproductive health care, including contraception. The numbers are worse for women who are Black (38%), Latinx (45%), and LGBTQIA+ (46%).
Cost is one issue. For many women (particularly low-income women and those without insurance), this was true long before COVID-19. For example, according to the NWLC, one in three Latinx women and 46% of Black women of reproductive age report that they cannot afford to pay more than $10 for contraception. Now, skyrocketing unemployment rates and the loss of employer-based insurance coverage is making contraception unaffordable for many more. It is estimated that 27 million people lost their health insurance between March and the beginning of May due to losing their jobs. A May-June 2020 survey found widespread disruptions to health insurance coverage among people who have lost their jobs.
The inability to access providers is another issue. The pandemic has made getting an appointment with a provider more difficult as many clinics have reduced the number of patients that can be scheduled at a time. Furthermore, some anti-choice governors have used the pandemic as an opportunity to ban medication and/or surgical abortion care, on the grounds that the procedure is “elective” and should not be performed during the public health emergency.
The NWHN is Advocating for Expanded Access to Abortion Care
One of the few silver linings to the pandemic is the growing use of telemedicine, in which people confer with health care providers without leaving their homes, thereby expanding access to services while minimizing the risk of infection. Throughout the country, patients are turning to telehealth appointments for routine abortion care too in order to maintain physical distancing during the COVID-19 outbreak. But until a judge forced the FDA to stop enforcing its rule, the agency still required patients to pick up mifepristone (the first of two medications used together to terminate a pregnancy) from designated clinics and doctors’ offices in person — even though the FDA permits patients to wait until they get home to swallow the pill and even though the abortion itself always takes place at home.
For many women, this requires them to take off time from work (on the clinic’s schedule), arrange childcare, arrange for transportation, travel long distances, pay for travel costs, and endure threats and harassment from clinic protesters. Any one of these barriers can significantly delay a pregnant person’s ability to access timely care.
Why should anyone be forced to leave their home during a pandemic to get supplies for a medication abortion, when the pills could be safely delivered to homes, as they are for numerous other prescription medicines?
Now more than ever, it is critical to eliminate unnecessary restrictions on abortion care. The NWHN’s #MailTheAbortionPill campaign is urging the FDA to lift the politically motivated, medically unnecessary restrictions on accessing the abortion pill, and let people get the pill where they take the pill — at home.
The COVID-19 pandemic and its economic fallout are significantly impacting many Americans, and especially women. We are suffering the brunt of threats to employment, health coverage, childcare, work-life balance, and access to reproductive health care. The Trump-Pence Administration is doing to the bare minimum in combating COVID-19 and is doing even less to address issues affecting women.
Read more on how COVID-19 is disproportionately impacting and burdening communities of color here.
Gabriela Salas is the NWHN Policy Fellow
APM Research Lab Staff. (Aug. 2020). “The Color of Coronavirus: COVID-19 Deaths by Race and Ethnicity in the U.S.”. APM Research Lab. Aug. 4. 2020.