From Abortion To Domestic Violence: How The Coronavirus Crisis Hits Women Hardest

Photographed by Flora Maclean.
"Things will never be the same again." I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard people say that in recent weeks. We’ve heard it before, though, haven’t we? After 9/11, things would "never be the same". But despite a rise in racism and no longer being allowed to take liquids into an airport with you, little changed day to day. After the global financial crash, things would "never be the same". But we bailed out the bankers and imposed austerity on people who were already struggling. 
After the coronavirus crisis, will things actually change? This pandemic has laid bare the structural inequality in Britain. It’s highlighted that private renters are likely to have fewer savings than homeowners. It’s made it clear that cleaners, supermarket checkout staff, delivery drivers and care workers who earn the least and were considered "low skilled" only a few weeks ago are actually the people who keep our country going. And it’s reminding us that, as they so often do, women are bearing the brunt of this inequality. 

The virus itself seems (from what we know) to have a lower death rate among women. But this is not only a public health crisis now, it's an economic one too.

The virus itself seems (from what we know) to have a lower death rate among women. But this is not only a public health crisis now, it’s an economic one too.
In order to stop the spread of COVID-19, our schools, shops, bars, clubs and cafés have been ordered to close. Many people have already lost their jobs or seen their income suddenly drop. We’ve all received a text message from the government telling us not to go outside unless necessary. And older people – particularly those with pre-existing health conditions – have been told to isolate at home. 
The impact of all of this will inevitably be gendered. Of course, that will intersect with age, disability, class and race, too. The Women’s Budget Group notes that the majority of health workers and people providing care, be it paid or unpaid, are women. This means that they are more likely to be exposed to COVID-19 but, at the same time, more likely to be affected by the decision to close schools and nurseries and the need to move non-urgent patients out of hospitals and back into their homes, where relatives or care workers will care for them. 

Women hold 70% of jobs that are not entitled to Statutory Sick Pay.

The Women’s Budget Group also points out that women are more likely to be employed in service sectors that have been hit hardest by social distancing measures, more likely to be on insecure and zero-hour contracts, more likely to be dependent on social security and more likely to be in an insecure housing situation. As a report they published earlier this year found, there is currently not a single place in Britain where it is affordable for women to rent or buy a home of their own. Single women and solo parents (90% of whom are women) are already less able to afford housing, so if their income suffers because of this crisis they will be harder hit. Women also hold 70% of jobs that are not entitled to Statutory Sick Pay.
More than this (as if it wasn’t enough), home isn’t a safe place for everyone. While some will be Instagramming their working from home selfies, being compelled to self-isolate at home will, as Women’s Aid has warned, increase the vulnerability of some women and children to domestic violence and abuse. 

This pandemic has shown us just how serious Britain's gendered inequality is.

All of this was preventable. We already knew all this. It’s no surprise to anyone, least of all those most affected. It’s not new information. We knew our society was unbalanced. We knew that too many women were living precariously. We knew that the state support available to them barely covered their rent and bills. We knew that rents and house prices had grown far above incomes. We knew that the number of zero-hour contracts was rising.  
What this pandemic has shown us is just how serious Britain's gendered inequality is, because we will be relying on so many of these women to keep us all going – whether that’s by keeping their children at home, making sure we can get what we need from our food shops, working in our hospitals or looking after our elderly. 
The government has, so far, failed to recognise any of this in its emergency support packages delivered by our impossibly slick and seemingly implacable chancellor as he stands behind his "Stay at Home" podium. To add insult to injury, it somehow managed to publish legislation which said that abortion pills would be available for women to take at home before mysteriously declaring that it had been published in error and going back on the announcement. The health secretary, Matt Hancock has since said that "there are no changes to abortion law". 

This isn't the first global pandemic and it won't be the last. Will the government implement policies that could not only help women during this crisis but level the playing field for generations to come? 

How does a mistake like that happen? The British Pregnancy Advisory Service is asking the government and is yet to receive an answer. Meanwhile, Jonathan Lord, the medical director for Marie Stopes UK, told me that they are also "seeking urgent clarification from the Department of Health" to understand why it gave approval for home-based early medical abortion and then withdrew it. Must a woman who needs an abortion in the coming weeks or months run the risk of contracting and/or spreading COVID-19 because she can’t access pills over the phone to take at home, despite all experts agreeing that this would be completely safe?
We need abortion legislation that works in all eventualities. We need affordable housing. We need benefits people can actually live off. We need universal free childcare. We need to pay carers and key workers properly. The self-employed and those on zero hours should be able to claim sick pay. If not now, when?
This isn’t the first global pandemic and, sadly, it won’t be the last. Will the government implement policies that could not only help women during this crisis but level the playing field for generations to come? Are things actually going to change this time or will it just be more of the same?
The World Health Organization says you can protect yourself by washing your hands, covering your mouth when sneezing or coughing (ideally with a tissue), avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth and don't get too close to people who are coughing, sneezing or with a fever.

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