For Wenham, the most striking statistic from Sierra Leone, one of the countries worst affected by Ebola, was that from 2013 to 2016, during the outbreak, more women died of obstetric complications than the infectious disease itself. But these deaths, like the unnoticed caring labor on which the modern economy runs, attract less attention than the immediate problems generated by an epidemic. These deaths are taken for granted. In her book Invisible Women, Caroline Criado Perez notes that 29 million papers were published in more than 15,000 peer-reviewed titles around the time of the Zika and Ebola epidemics, but less than 1 percent explored the gendered impact of the outbreaks. Wenham has found no gender analysis of the coronavirus outbreak so far; she and two co-authors have stepped into the gap to research the issue.
The evidence we do have from the Ebola and Zika outbreaks should inform the current response. In both rich and poor countries, campaigners expect domestic-violence rates to rise during lockdown periods. Stress, alcohol consumption, and financial difficulties are all considered triggers for violence in the home, and the quarantine measures being imposed around the world will increase all three. The British charity Women’s Aid said in a statement that it was “concerned that social distancing and self-isolation will be used as a tool of coercive and controlling behaviour by perpetrators, and will shut down routes to safety and support.”
Researchers, including those I spoke with, are frustrated that findings like this have not made it through to policy makers, who still adopt a gender-neutral approach to pandemics. They also worry that opportunities to collect high-quality data which will be useful for the future are being missed. For example, we have little information on how viruses similar to the coronavirus affect pregnant women—hence the conflicting advice during the current crisis—or, according to Susannah Hares, a senior policy fellow at the Center for Global Development, sufficient data to build a model for when schools should reopen.
We shouldn’t make that mistake again. Grim as it is to imagine now, further epidemics are inevitable, and the temptation to argue that gender is a side issue, a distraction from the real crisis, must be resisted. What we do now will affect the lives of millions of women and girls in future outbreaks.
The coronavirus crisis will be global and long-lasting, economic as well as medical. However, it also offers an opportunity. This could be the first outbreak where gender and sex differences are recorded, and taken into account by researchers and policy makers. For too long, politicians have assumed that child care and elderly care can be “soaked up” by private citizens—mostly women—effectively providing a huge subsidy to the paid economy. This pandemic should remind us of the true scale of that distortion.