OPINION: The gendered impact of COVID-19 in India

Stranded travellers stand with their belongings at the Tamil Nadu-Andra Pradesh interstate border along a national highway during a government-imposed lockdown | AFP Representational image | Aayush Goel

The sound of verbal fighting penetrates the unusual period of silence afforded by lockdown. Looking out, one can see working class pensioners waiting to collect their meagre monthly payments from the bank, the long-winding queue reminiscent of demonetisation days. The security guard has lost his battle of getting people to maintain physical distance because the harangued elderly are exhausted and angry, squatting in the hot and humid outdoors. Some women are accompanied by their sons, who, going by experiences shared by our community members, are quite likely to usurp the pension from their mothers.

Across the street, a couple of open pick-up trucks with scattered, pitiful belongings of the poor try to leave the city, the men begging of the police to let them proceed. The women hold on to pots and pans, and the children watch fearfully. Where would they go? Would stigmatised groups such as the NT-DNT be welcomed back in the villages? How would women, whose primary responsibility it is to create a new home, earn the goodwill from new neighbours, scrounge for fuel, water and other essential items in caste-ridden rural India, and yet manage to keep their children alive in times of shortage and destitution? What price would womenfolk pay when their husbands, unable to return shark loans coax them to face debtors, hoping to get some respite from repayment? And what would happen to children, especially girls, when their education comes to a halt for months on end, when we know that early or child marriage becomes the norm in uncertain times, as does trafficking of women and children?

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The gendered and intersectional impact of any natural or human-made calamity, including COVID-19 plays out even in middle-class homes because ‘working from home’ is not the same for men and women. With domestic workers being laid off (so much haggling around paying them during lockdown!), women are relegated to unending household chores because everyone is home all the time. In the meanwhile, physical distancing has little meaning for the laid off working class woman who has to fill water at the crowded common tap, use public latrines or sell vegetables to make ends meet.

Irrespective of who could pass on COVID-19 to whom, physical distancing within the home cannot be ensured by women alone, because of the husband’s prerogative to have sex at will. A nurse, frontline health worker, policewoman and waste picker returning home from work is expected to cook, clean, and bathe the children, with little concern for her own rest or recreation, while simultaneously facing resentment for ‘putting the family at risk’. The sudden lockdown has also temporarily separated families across districts. The return of the husband results in relief and rejoicing, whereas a wife who has lived on her own faces suspicion, and in dire cases, desertion. Men who are frustrated by the worsened financial situation could also leave the family and settle down elsewhere, thereby increasing the number of single mothers left to fend for their children.

Since women are considered primary caregivers, the physical or emotional ailments of other family members become women’s responsibility. Loss of wages, jobs, boredom, withdrawal from alcohol and other drugs, as well as lack of access to uninterrupted treatment of TB or psycho-social illnesses would have far-reaching consequences for the patient as well as for the women in the household. With public hospitals closing their OPDs, the poorest would have no access for acute or chronic ailments. In such situations women and adolescent girls from poor families who have the least access to health care, would suffer the most. Groups working for health rights in India such as the Jan Swasthya Abhiyan and Medico Friend Circle have expressed concern about the hierarchy in prioritising COVID-19 over other existing illnesses, especially in the context of our dwindling public health services.

Spain nationalised its hospitals during this pandemic, but most health care expenditure in our country is still out-of-pocket, and often used for expensive treatment in the private sector. Women living with disabilities and those from stigmatised groups such as Muslim women, LGBT individuals, women living with HIV-AIDS or sex workers have already been drastically impacted in terms of access to basic amenities and health care. At the other end, there are reports of frontline health workers such as the ASHA facing physical violence while striving to prevent COVID-19 infections in their villages. The Kerala-based 3.8 lakh strong United Nurses Association has already moved the Supreme Court, highlighting the extreme risks faced by health care workers across the country.

Sexual activity, whether consensual or forced, also impacts men and women differently. In this globalised world, the raw material for the Medical Abortion Pills (MAPs), which comes from China, would not be available to import during lockdown. The cost of MPAs is likely to skyrocket in India, making access difficult for many women. On the other hand, Indian pharmaceuticals are the largest suppliers of MAPs globally; thus, there could be a cascading effect on supplies worldwide. Decreased production and distribution of condoms, oral pills and emergency contraception pills, and reduced access to abortion (both surgical and medical) will force women to go through unwanted pregnancies or resort to unsafe methods to terminate pregnancy, unless abortion (which also has legal implications in terms of gestational time limit) is considered an essential medical service.

Increased domestic violence due to forced proximity has increased worldwide; worse still, women are now cloistered within the four walls with their batterers. In response to the alarming incidence of gender-based violence during the pandemic, the UN chief has exhorted governments to treat legal, medical and related responses to domestic violence as emergency services. Globally, as well as in India, helplines are being set up by women’s organisations to deal with the escalating physical and sexual violence. Needless to say, violence within the home and outside it are inter-related; therefore dealing with both is equally essential.

Not only has the COVID-19 pandemic affected men and women differently, it has also affected unequally placed women differently. Therefore, only an approach that recognises the special needs and rights of marginalised and excluded people can have a meaningful and lasting impact on the wellbeing of all our people. Perhaps, we will respect our domestic workers and waste-pickers when they return to service us after lockdown; perhaps men will acknowledge that childrearing and sharing housework can be fulfilling activities; perhaps we will strive to strengthen our public health system, and perhaps we will recognise that many of us can do with much less than we imagined before this pandemic. COVID-19 has the potential to take us and our planet towards the brink of disaster, or it can prompt us to move towards an equitable and sustainable society.

Gupte is the co-founder and co-convenor of Mahila Sarvangeen Utkarsh Mandal (MASUM). She was also named among THE WEEK Couple of the Year in 2017, along with Dr Ramesh Awasthi.

Dalvie is a practising gynaecologist in Mumbai and is also the coordinator of the Asia Safe Abortion Partnership (ASAP).

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors' and do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of THE WEEK.