SHOMA A.CHATTERJI | 19 MARCH, 2020
The Impact of the Pandemic on Women, Does Anyone Care?
The media across the map – print, radio, television, Internet and social media has sidetracked every other news of general interest to give central space to the Corona Virus and its implications – in terms of health and medical issues, in terms of its financial impact on the primary, secondary and tertiary sectors, in terms of its epidemic spread and the fears generating therefrom. Covid 19 from its basic origin in China is an international issue with grave political, health, demographic and medical consequences on the general masses, on specialized experts in different fields, and so on.
However, other than what precautions pregnant women need to take in order to protect themselves and their unborn babies from infection, women have been marginalized in studies and reports on Covid 19. This is truly strange and also interesting in view of the fact that women are in the forefront of the entire epidemic forming virus that is endangering our social, political and physical lives in every way.
Women in India and also in other affected countries from a big slice of the indigenous population specially in urban areas but there is little news coverage or investigative stories around their plight in the present situation. Working or non-working, or working part-time, social distancing is difficult for women which makes them more prone to infection and less able to afford protection through face-masks, hand sanitizers and even handwashing soaps all of which are now being openly sold in black and proper medical stores have run out of stock.
Women in their social roles as wives, mothers, daughters and sisters are deeply involved and therefore, perhaps more susceptible than men to the virus. Women in their professional roles as nurses, paramedics, primary health care workers, specially appointed workers in quarantine and other medical camps have hardly made it to the news barring a few exceptions here and there.
According to a report by Divya Ramaswamy in the International Business Times (27/02/2020): “Experts also opined that women mount a stronger immune response to infection, mentioned the New York Times. Per the recent CDC reports, although both women and men are affected in roughly equal numbers, experts have reported that the death rate was 2.8% in men compared to just 1.7% in women.” Smokers, according to medical experts and international reports, are more susceptible to being infected than non-smokers.
But in India and across the English-speaking and European populace, the number of women smokers are much, much higher than it is in China where according to a 2019 WHO Report, 47.6% of Chinese men smoked and only 1.8% of women in China are smokers. There has been no concerted effort till now to dissuade the mass population from smoking specially women as they work in proximity with children at home, with the boss in the office in secretarial posts and with directly affected victims of Covid 19, as nurses and paramedics.
In a survey conducted by Assocham Social Development Foundation in 2017, among 2,000 women in the age group of 22-30 years in Ahmedabad, Bengaluru, Chennai, Delhi-NCR (National Capital Region), Hyderabad, Jaipur, Kolkata, Lucknow, Mumbai and Pune, about 40 per cent of the respondents identified themselves as very light smokers, with a habit of smoking one or two cigarettes either daily or occasionally. About 12 per cent said they were light smokers, smoking two to three cigarettes a day. Of the remaining 46 per cent, about a fourth said they had quit smoking, the report added. Almost all the respondents said that the phenomenon of women smoking was basically confined to tier-one cities like Bengaluru, Chennai, Delhi, Kolkata and Mumbai, according to the report.
In February, Fox News reported that Chinese women paramedics were shaving their heads to take proper care of the Covid 19 patients. But while they were reported as having volunteered to shave their heads, one live video showed a paramedic with a shaved head breaking into tears. But men paramedics did not shave their heads. Why? The women nurses and paramedics were also given oestrogen to postpone their periods so that their work does not get obstructed even temporarily that might keep them away from taking care of patients under their care.
Another report showed faces of Chinese women paramedics with bruised and scarred faces from wearing face guards/masks supplied to them which harmed them even while they were performing their duty. But none of these stories raised any question at all among journalists in other papers or media to point out why women are being made victims even within their responsibilities.
There is hardly any coverage of women hawkers, street food sellers and cooks, caregivers from agencies, private nurses, female domestics, pavement dwellers, market hawkers, construction workers, porters, etc about how they are being affected by the virus and how they would be able to protect themselves, or take action immediately or recognize the signs and approach for help.
Housewives who have to visit crowded places like markets, shops, to do their daily shopping and cannot afford to indulge in online shopping which is both expensive and uncertain and, in some areas, even risky, are covered only along with the general population. Bar girls, dancers, junior artistes are not only vulnerable but are also stopped from pursuing their trade and will soon be pushed to the edge of starvation. There is no coverage of such women in the media as of today.
The sole saving grace however, arrived in the form of a brilliant news report published yesterday in the Indian Express that described, fairly in detail, how the sudden drop in footfall in Sonagachhi in Kolkata, one of the biggest red light areas in India, is affecting the sex workers financially while increased footfalls will impact on their susceptibility to getting infected by customers.
Sonagachhi has seen a 50 per cent decline in customers’ footfall in last three-four days – a period when the number of Covid-19 cases increased in the country. According to Smarajit Jana, chief adviser and founder of Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (a sex workers’ organisation), sex workers are apprehensive to seek out clients under the present circumstances.
“The footfall has reduced drastically. About 12,000 customers visit Sonagachi daily, and there has been a 50 per cent drop in the footfall in the last three-four days. As a result, sex workers are losing a lot of money. Some are also apprehensive to seek out clients,” Jana told The Indian Express. The area houses 7,000 sex workers and another couple of thousands who frequent it for clients but do not stay there. Another member of the committee said many have chosen to remain indoors, as they do not want to take chances. (Indian Express March 16, 2020). Jana said the committee had started awareness programmes to prepare workers to overcome the health crisis. “Our health educators are visiting such workers and asking them not to allow clients who have a cough and fever. Identification of such clients is important. They have been also asked not to panic but to take proper precaution to prevent contracting the virus,” he said.
Can’t we have more such stories involving women as subjects open to infection in areas we do not even talk about? Women whose life is at stake in financial and real terms who have to feed children with an unscheduled one-month holiday they are not prepared to meet? The country has no infra-structure one may agree. But just as the entire country is prepping itself up to face the virus war, should it also not include the creation of a temporary infra-structure for these marginalised women?