A pandemic is not a unifier

by Saira Rahman Khan | Published: 00:00, May 30,2020


Commuters wait for a tram next to an electronic billboard featuring a campaign against domestic violence, with the mask reading ‘ Silence won’t protect you’, in Berlin on May 28 amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.  — Agence France-Presse/John Macdougall

TIMES of unrest, war and crisis have always been linked to an increase in interpersonal violence. A pandemic is a global crisis and is no exception to this. What began, and continues to be, a public health crisis has put out branches and flourished into a full-blown global socio-economic crisis. This, in turn, is affecting not only physical well-being but also mental health at an individual level. It is also, unfortunately, bringing out the monster in some. Facing the brunt of the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic are women. Has this always been the case? What have past pandemics showed us?

Pandemics create mental issues such as depression, isolation, traumatic stress and a feeling of loss of control. In abusive relationships, such issues can trigger an increase in violence. Alcohol and drug abuse may rise as coping mechanisms which also may have violent consequences. The increase in violence against women in the current COVID-19 pandemic has been confirmed worldwide and termed a ‘shadow pandemic’. However, all these issues were also noted and recorded during SARS and swine flu epidemics in Hong Kong. Fears of the disease and contracting it, poor health facilities and lack of information may also instigate violence. During the ebola outbreak, violence against women and girls was more prominent. One of the reasons could be that the ebola outbreak affected areas with low-income population and areas that did not have sufficient healthcare facilities. These and the financial tension and related issues manifested into violence.

For an example, school closures because of ebola caused many girls to drop out of school. This caused an increase in domestic and sexual violence. In Guinea, studies showed a 4.5 per cent increase in cases of gender-based violence since before the epidemic including twice as many rapes; and Liberia also saw more cases of gender-based violence as a result of the outbreak. In Sierre Leone, obstetric healthcare facilities were closed because of the ebola outbreak and the maternal mortality rate rose. Pregnant women suspected of carrying ebola were denied care and midwives avoided them as they were not provided with protective gear. More women died there of obstetric complications than of ebola. The fact that pandemics and epidemics affect genders differently was quite evident during the ebola outbreak.

Women of all backgrounds — home-makers, white collar workers, factory workers, labourers and more  — are being run ragged in this COVID-19 pandemic. It has become a global consequence. Both men and women are in lockdown but the women face more physical and mental stress such as increased partner violence, anxieties about food and meals, ill health because of a decrease in food consumption, increased child care responsibilities and, as the primary care giver, the constant fear of contracting the virus. There may be a difference in the level and kind of violence and discrimination faced, based on social, cultural and economic backgrounds of women, but it is universally agreed and proved by recent research that women are facing increased mental and physical harm as a consequence of the pandemic and the preventive measures that are not taking gender differences into account. The mental stress may also adversely affect the children. It is not only the virus that is contagious.

As human beings, we are all susceptible to the viruses that cause epidemics and pandemics, but having a gender-neutral approach to treatment and control will probably be the wrong path to take. Much of the focus during this pandemic is on the virus itself, how to prevent it, treat it and the search for a vaccine. Data are focused on fatalities caused by COVID-19 and the number of people contracting it. Probably the only official gender-based data we have is one that shows that men are more susceptible to the virus than women. This is a crucial piece of public health information, but not enough to have an all-encompassing, multi-pronged preventive and safe-guarding approach. The effect of this pandemic on men and women must be studied separately and recorded to enable policy-makers to have a check list of measures that effectively handle future crises as well as rebuilding infrastructure afterwards. The effects and consequences of the pandemic must not only be considered from the point of view of people’s health, but a social and economic crisis that affects men and women differently.

Saira Rahman Khan teaches law at BRAC University.

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