The coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19) is an unprecedented crisis, changing life for everyone on earth. Large parts of humanity are in lockdown. At the time of publication, more than 1.6 million people have been sickened. More than 95,000 have died. Up to 25 million people could lose their jobs; 35 million more could enter working poverty. Yet we are all affected differently – and gender is a crucial part of that.
Previous epidemics – including Ebola – suggest the same, and that we overlook these differences, hindering our recovery. UN Women, UNFPA and the Center for Global Development are calling for a ‘gendered’ look at COVID-19. Here is my attempt to examine the different vulnerabilities of men and women to COVID19 in China, and how this crisis offers a chance for change.
How are women and men affected?
Male mortality: While women and men contract the virus equally, it appears deadlier for men, killing 2.8% of men, versus 1.7% of women, according to figures in China. While more data is needed to confirm this, the disparity may be due to underlying male health risks – particularly, higher rates of smoking. In China, 52.1% of men smoke, versus just 2.7% of women.
Gender-segregated occupational risk: women make up 90% of nurses in Hubei province. That makes them more exposed to the virus, as nurses are more involved in intimate patient care than doctors, who tend to be men. This also reflects how being a nurse is often viewed as “a woman’s job” around the world, where care professions attract few men.
Gender-biased media and governance: During China’s early response, media showed frontline male medics as heroes, with women mainly invisible, or depicted supporting men and their families (as girlfriends, wives, mothers, daughters). When women were on the frontline, media focused on their bodies instead of their professionalism, including a story about female nurses shaving their heads. Online campaigns responded; the All China Women’s Federation (ACWF) published a list of 20 heroines honoring frontline female medics. ACWF will also advocate for female sanitary products in epidemic response gear – as female medics in Hubei could not get tampons.
Unpaid work burden: Women spend 2.5 times more time on unpaid care work than men in China, averaging almost 4 hours a day. Two-thirds of women regard this as more tiring than office work. This increases when schools and businesses close, with women working from home also frequently juggling added domestic work, such as cooking and cleaning - which multiplies if a family member becomes sick. It also limits women’s economic opportunities; many companies still see working mothers as a burden, and unequal household work is the main cause of fewer women being in paid work.
Unequal financial burden: Work inequality also harms men. Globally, men are more commonly the household breadwinner, carrying heavier financial responsibilities. This may increase their psychological strain from economic pressures arising from the outbreak, such as job or income losses.
Informal sector vulnerability: Women make up a disproportional share of the workers in the informal economy in the world, and likely also in China. In crises, they face higher risks of losing their incomes, as well as unemployment and exploitation amid the global slowdown, which may be long-lasting.
Domestic Violence: During China’s travel lockdown, domestic violence against women in China leapt by two to three times in some areas, according to an anti-domestic violence organization, amid rising economic and domestic strains. Survivors also had fewer options for escape and weaker social support.
Beneath all these challenges lie unhealthy gender norms rooted in society. UNDP’s recent Gender Social Norms Index found almost 90% of men and women globally are biased against women, with 88% of women and men in China holding at least one bias against women. And biases hurt everyone.
So, what can we change?
As humanity recovers, we have a unique opportunity to “RECOVER BETTER” in the words of UN Secretary General, António Guterres, in a first-of-its-kind virtual press conference:
“Done right, we can steer the recovery toward a more sustainable and inclusive path. But poorly coordinated policies risk locking in -- or even worsening -- already unsustainable inequalities, reversing hard-won development gains and poverty reduction.”
UNDP stands ready to help China “recover better,” by advocating for women, men and all people who may be left behind by COVID-19. We will work with the UN family in China to add a gender angle to the social economic impact studies ongoing to better understand how COVID-19 affects everyone. Along with UN Women and other UN agencies, we will also explore initiatives to address violence against women and children during crises. UNDP will also launch a campaign on women in technology, challenging unhelpful stereotypes about working women.
To further support equality – and reduce strains on each gender – investments are also needed across society to lessen the care burden on women, freeing them for more paid work. For example, by supporting better, more affordable childcare and role-modeling men doing unpaid care work.
Psycho-social support tailored to different gender and age needs could also allow us to better cope with the challenges we are more prone to due to individual and group characteristics. Public campaigns – including the UN’s HeforShe movement – can also help to overcome stereotypes and mitigate various gendered risks in future. For example, by raising awareness on SGBV and its prevention across society, as well as tackling unhealthy lifestyle choices in men and boys.
Gender sensitivity in society, governance and the economy can enable more positive, equal gender norms in future. UNDP’s Gender Recovery Toolkit offers strategies towards this – including preventing and responding to SGBV in crises, promoting new livelihoods for gender equality in economic recovery and encouraging women’s involvement in crisis recovery, among others.
COVID-19 has shown how swiftly social norms can be shattered. Across the world, momentous changes are underway in the relationships between states and citizens, employers and workers, neighbours and strangers. This proves that what was once impossible is now possible, when everyone’s future is at stake. We are all in this together, facing an intangible, invisible and indiscriminate foe. Consequently, discriminatory ideas – based on gender, race or any other distinction – help no-one, when we share one purpose: to survive, and emerge better. Only through cooperation, compassion and courage can we overcome Covid-19. And only when we are all equal are those strengths possible: all supported to fulfill our potential; all empowered to earn a decent living; all safe in our own homes.
Like a virus, if inequality persists, we are all less healthy, less wealthy and less whole. Yet it can also be conquered when we unite – protecting the vulnerable, so we can all be stronger. As humanity heals, the inequality between us might also one day be cured – if we all commit to recovering better.
Authored by Ms. Beate Trankmann, UNDP Resident Representative in China
 Smith J. Overcoming the “tyranny of the urgent”: integrating gender into disease outbreak preparedness and response. Gender Develop 2019; 27: 355–69.
 National Bureau of Statistics of China. Women and Men in China – Facts and Figures 2019: 63
 According to the National Statistics Bureau of China, in 2017, the registered unemployment rate of women living in the city and the township consists of 43.1%. Women in situations of unemployment can also be working in informal sectors. According to UN Women, women in informal sectors include women working as street vendors, domestic workers, subsistence farmers and seasonal agriculture workers etc. Women working in informal sectors means that they are not protected by any labor contract, and they do not enjoy protection under labor or social insurance laws. See: UN Women. Women in informal Economy.