Written by Ranaa Cheaito
It is not an understatement to say that COVID-19 has taken the world by a storm. The global spread of the pandemic and susequent official responses have unearthed gendered socio-economic disparities which are chronic and yet overlooked.
On March 15, 2020, the Lebanese Cabinet ordained a “health emergency” which called for work suspension in all public administrations, educational institutions, and commercial entities. From then and on, the Government enacted several “nation-wide closures/general mobilizations” in an attempt to contain the rapid spread of the pandemic.
Though great efforts were invested in maintaining stability, namely work from home, online education, and holding on to essential labor, Lebanon seems to be lying on the edge of ample collapse. The health crisis has only furthered the underpinning economic challenges of currency devaluation which are a result of poor policy design and implementation as well as political malpractice. It has also exposed the gaps in response action plans which are gender-blind and oblivious to the systemic discrimination women suffer from in private and public spheres. Evidently, Lebanon is not a stranger to the capitalist global economy, which is far more interested in accumulating capital than protecting labor.
In the light of these projections, it is important to look into the reasons why women bear the top-heavy burden in health risk crises by addressing access to healthcare, economic opportunities, and safety.
While one can argue that a lock-down may be effective in addressing proximate healthcare implications, namely the spread of COVID-19, it is imperative to acknowledge that the same measures acutely exacerbate structural injustices. To begin with, women compose 79.52% of the Lebanese nursing body according to the Order of Nurses in Lebanon. The increased occupational health risk associated with women composing the greater share of the front-line paramedical body translates to higher infection rates among women. In fact, statistical studies of infection rates among healthcare workers in Lebanon show that 60% of infected healthcare workers are women. Nonetheless this percentage is merely the face value of a far more compounded effect. The contagion effect of women contracting the virus is much more drastic given the domestic and care duties allocated to them in familial contexts and private spheres. Women are expected to look after infants, elderly, and sick family members. Therefore, the occupational health risks might contribute to higher infection rates. This brings us to the allied matter of unpaid labor.
According to the United Nations Population Fund, women do three times more unpaid work at home compared to men. With the mass shutdown of educational institutions, women are expected to take on additional unpaid labor namely homeschooling duties. This comes at the expense of their paid work which they would risk defaulting on and thus losing. It does not come as a surprise that coronavirus workforce losses have impacted women disproportionately. In addition to earning less wages and being relegated to informal work sectors, women hold less secure jobs which make them more vulnerable in states of crises. This amplifies in turn the sizeable gender wage gap, which according to the World Economic Forum stands at 56% in Lebanon.
As for migrant domestic workers, the economic collapse in Lebanon coupled with the pandemic confinement measures have aggravated their critical and vulnerable position. Workers that were not abandoned by their employers due to the escalating economic crisis were forced to stay home on their weekly day-off and ultimately forced to work. They are also forced to do outdoor activities such as walking pets and buying groceries which puts them at a greater risk of contracting the virus.
With in-person activity kept to a minimum and social distancing measures instigated, most educational and work activities were digitized and moved online. Reliance on technology jeopardized the online safety of girls and women and exposed them to greater gender-based violence. Before the pandemic, women were already 27 times more likely to suffer from online harassment. The numbers are likely to increase during lock-downs. The violence against women however does not stop with turning off the gadgets.
Unfortunately, gender-based violence is also on the rise offline as governments fail to acknowledge that not all homes are safe. According to UN Women Lebanon statistics, the number of calls to the relevant helplines doubles since the beginning of the pandemic. Being constantly surrounded by their abuser not only puts victims at greater risk, but robs them the ability to report violence as well. In response, the Public Prosecutor of the Court of Cassation commanded Lebanese judges to allow for questioning of victims through video call instead of physical presence.
Another public health risk that is gravely affecting women is the reduced access to sexual and reproductive rights. COVID-19 is imposing further strains on the already poor access to information and services. Redirecting most resources to COVID-19 response plans is rendering this vital access impossible and thus leading to higher sexual and reproductive health related casualties. On March 18, 2020, the Ministry of Public Health formed a committee responsible for addressing the safety of pregnant women as part of the emergency health plan. Nonetheless, no note-worthy contributions were made. Many health workers report uncertainty when treating pregnant women, as they have not received adequate, relevant training.
For all the above reasons and more, for the disproportionate impact that women withstand in economic and health crises, structural and systemic neglect of the gender dimension in policy development and decision making needs to stop.
An inter-ministerial Emergency Corona Response Committee headed by the now resigned Prime Minister Hassan Diab was inaugurated earlier in March as well as a National Emergency Task-Force. The coordination efforts lacked the presence of a gender expert responsible for evaluating the effectiveness of measures on a gender level. This has ultimately led to a tyrannizing state of emergency that failed to protect women. Therefore, ensuring gender sensitivity and responsiveness should be at the forefront of preventive and intervention frameworks with keen focus on addressing gender-based violence, access to sexual and reproductive health services, economic empowerment and social protection strategies.
Being gender blind is oppression in action; it is a choice and not a happenstance. The protection of women is not peripheral and should no longer be regarded as such.
Rana Cheaito completed her BS in Economics at the Lebanese American University in 2018. As a growing economist and researcher, she makes a point to dedicate her career to challenging exclusionary economic systems and policies that perpetuate injustice.
1 COVID 19 Operational Plan, Ministry of Public Health, Lebanon, March 10, 2020, accessible through the following link: https://www.moph.gov.lb/userfiles/files/News/COvid%20operation%20plan-converted.pdf
2 Lebanon COVID-19 Emergency Appeal (07 May 2020), Relief Web Report, accessible through the following link: https://reliefweb.int/report/lebanon/lebanon-covid-19-emergency-appeal-07-may-2020
3 The Gendered Dimension of COVID-19 in Lebanon, AUB Policy Brief, accessible through the following link: https://www.aub.edu.lb/ifi/Pages/publications/policy_briefs/2019-2020/20200515-gender-dimension-of-covid-19.aspx
4 The Gendered Dimension of COVID-19 in Lebanon, AUB Policy Brief, accessible through the following link: https://www.aub.edu.lb/ifi/Documents/publications/policy_briefs/2019-2020/20200515_gender_dimension_of_covid_19.pdf
5 Gender Dimenstions of the COVID-19 Pandemics, World Bank Group Policy Note, accessible through the following link: http://documents1.worldbank.org/curated/en/618731587147227244/pdf/Gender-Dimensions-of-the-COVID-19-Pandemic.pdf