The Facts: Women and Pandemics

In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic began to spread across the world, and unprecedented impacts were felt both in Canada and globally. Despite widespread vaccination, more than two years later, the impacts of the pandemic continue to be felt.

“Across every sphere, from health to the economy, security to social protection, the impacts of COVID-19 are exacerbated for women and girls simply by virtue of their sex,” said a United Nations policy brief. “With the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said the UN, “even the limited gains made in the past decades are at risk of being rolled back.” The Canadian Human Rights Commission has echoed this statement with its own, saying: “These disproportionate impacts could have long-term and far reaching consequences. If we are to restore momentum in our efforts to bring about gender equality in Canada, social and economic recovery efforts must take a feminist approach.”

The pandemic circumstances intensified inequalities related to gender, and other factors, such as economic status, race, culture, language, and other intersecting elements of our identities. It is important to understand the intersectional gendered implications of the pandemic, especially in the areas of gender-based violence, economic security, girls’ empowerment, and inclusive leadership.

Frequently asked questions about women and the COVID-19 pandemic

Peoples’ experiences of pandemics are grounded in longstanding social inequalities that impact all of us, every single day. Epidemiological analysis on gender and COVID-19 infection, recovery, and death rates is an ongoing process.

According to the Government of Canada, more women have been diagnosed with COVID-19 than men. This could be due to the high number of women living in a nursing homes and seniors’ residences. A high number of COVID-19 deaths have been in nursing homes.

More women than men have been diagnosed with COVID-19 following vaccination, which could also be due to factors such as the high ratio of women who work on the front lines of health services, caregiving, cleaning, and other essential roles where workers are at high risk of contracting the virus.

The experience of long COVID – symptoms more than 12 weeks after diagnosis – is disproportionately impacting women. Research estimates that 60-80 per cent of women in their middle years who received a COVID-19 diagnosis are impacted by long COVID. In a Canadian survey of over 1,000 people with long COVID, more than 87 per cent identified as women. The experience of long COVID can impact women’s ability to work, threatening their career advancement and earning potential.

When it comes to the isolation measures imposed to prevent the spread of the virus, four key gendered impacts for women were:

  • Increased risk of gender-based violence (See “Why is the pandemic linked to increased gender-based violence?”)
  • More economic stress (See “How will the COVID-19 pandemic impact women economically in Canada?”)
  • Increased burden of caregiving and housework
  • Reduced access to support services

Women and girls who face intersecting barriers and discrimination may have experienced additional challenges related to the pandemic. These communities include:

First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities

Canada’s history of colonialism has meant that many Indigenous communities experience a number of barriers to health and safety, including overcrowding, isolation, declining infrastructure, and limited Internet access. Indigenous women and girls also face a higher risk of gender-based violence, which may have been exacerbated by isolation measures. In one survey, Indigenous participants were twice as likely as non-Indigenous participants to indicate being concerned about violence in the home, and Indigenous women reported more concern than Indigenous men.

A 2022 Canadian Women’s Foundation report indicated that Indigenous youth reported high rates of feeling depressed (78 per cent), and anxious (73 per cent) due to the pandemic. Many (74 per cent) said their mental health worsened during the pandemic. Many Indigenous youth have also experienced barriers when accessing support, including a lack of culturally appropriate resources (39 per cent) and long wait times (64 per cent).

East Asian communities

With the spread of the COVID-19 virus, people in Canada’s East Asian communities began experiencing more acts of racism. Reports of anti-Asian racism continued to rise throughout the pandemic, and in some cases increased dramatically. Approximately 66% of the reports of anti-Asian racism were filed by Asian women.

Black communities
Canada has limited tracking of race or ethnicity as part of its COVID-19 data collection. But there are reports that indicate Black people have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19.

A Toronto report found that Black people and other people of colour made up 83 per cent of COVID-19 cases, despite making up 13 per cent of the city’s population. And Statistics Canada data indicated that the COVID-19 mortality rate for Black people was 2.2 times higher than non-racialized and non-Indigenous populations.

Racialized women

Racialized communities experienced a higher rate of COVID diagnosis due to inequitable living and working conditions that make them more susceptible to COVID-19, such as lower incomes, precarious employment, overcrowded housing, and limited access to health and social services. Mental health challenges rose as a result of these impacts, yet these communities faced barriers to accessing services. The mental health agency Across Boundaries gave out more than 300 phones to racialized and newcomer Canadians who could not access online services during the pandemic.

Women workers identifying as South Asian (at 20.4%), Arab (at 20.3%), and Black (at 18.6%) all reported higher rates of unemployment than non-racialized workers (9.3%) in July. Relatively narrow prior to COVID-19, the overall employment gap between racialized and non-racialized groups has grown to 92.1%.

Immigrant women

Immigrant women represented one-quarter of all female workers over age 15 (26.1%) in February 2020, but almost half of employment losses as of mid-July 2020 (45.0%). Women who were recent immigrants lost work quickly and deeply and are recovering it slowly. By April, 2020, 20% of recent immigrant women who had been employed in March were no longer employed, seven percentage points higher than among Canadian-born women, a result in part of their higher concentration in low-wage, short-term jobs. New research shows that they experienced a higher rate of transition to “non-employment” throughout the lockdown and a lower rate of transition to “employment” as of July 2020.

Women living with disabilities

Women with disabilities may have experienced increased risk of contracting COVID-19 due to, for example, an inability to practice social distancing because of dependence on caregivers. There may have also been more barriers to practicing hygiene recommended prevention measures.

Senior and elderly women

Multiple outbreaks of COVID-19 at long-term care homes in Canada have highlighted systemic gaps that senior and elderly women may face in such facilities, particularly related to adequate staffing and oversight.

There is significant concern among Canadians about both the quality (79 per cent) and safety (77 per cent) of our long-term health facilities, suggests the Canadian Women’s Foundation’s National Opinion Survey: Public Concern about COVID-19’s Impact on Women, July 2020. Concern is particularly high in Ontario, and 71 per cent are concerned about family members in long-term care facilities as they stand today.

  • 91% agree that standards and oversight of long-term care facilities in Canada must be improved as soon as possible
  • 85% agree that we need to prioritize funding for long-term care in Canada.
  • 84% agree that we need a complete overhaul of long-term care.

The digital divide and other barriers to online services and information

Increased reliance on digital resources during the pandemic may leave some women and girls behind. Access to technology and digital resources is important not only for updates about the virus, isolation measures, and how to access government aid, but it’s also become a necessity for employment and education while in isolation.

  • There’s a digital divide for those living in rural and remote areas of Canada, where communities have less reliable Internet and cellular service.
  • People living on a low income may not have personal access to computers or mobile devices, particularly when multiple family members all need access at the same time for work and school. Those who previously relied on public resources like libraries for digital access can no longer do so.
  • Senior and elderly women may be less familiar and comfortable with using digital resources to access information and resources related to the pandemic. In Calgary, a phone hotline was set up specifically to serve seniors during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Those living with disabilities, such as vision or hearing limitations, may not be provided with COVID-19 updates in an accessible format, such as closed captioning.

In August 2020, the Canadian Women’s Foundation released the results of a national opinion poll highlighting public concern over the social and economic fallout of COVID-19 on women. The poll indicated that:

  • Sixty per cent of Canadians would like to see government recovery plans specifically address the unique impacts of the pandemic on women (70 per cent of women, 49 per cent of men). To that end, the Foundation has developed a series of Resetting Normal reports containing recommendations for building a gender-equal Canada in pandemic recovery efforts.
  • 71 per cent are concerned that women are at higher risk of experiencing violence due to home isolation during the pandemic.
  • 63 per cent are concerned that women face more exposure to COVID-19 given their representation in high-risk service and care industries (including grocery stores, nursing, personal support work).
  • 59 per cent are concerned that women in Canada are at higher risk than men of losing their jobs due to the impact of COVID-19 on the economy.

There is also significant concern about both the quality (79 per cent) and safety (77 per cent) of our long-term health facilities, particularly in Ontario, and 71 per cent are concerned about family members in long-term care facilities as they stand today. It’s been reported that women make up two-thirds of residents in nursing homes.

  • 91 per cent of Canadians agree that standards and oversight of long-term care facilities in Canada must be improved as soon as possible.
  • 85 per cent agree that we need to prioritize funding for long-term care in Canada.
  • 84 per cent agree that we need a complete overhaul of long-term care.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been linked to spikes in domestic violence reports and crisis calls in China, France, and the U.K. This echoes what has happened in past disease outbreaks.

In Canada, women’s shelters and organizations have also sounded alarms about the risk of increased violence. The Ontario Association of Interval and Transition Houses, for example, says 20 per cent of the 70 shelters it represents have had increased crisis calls during the pandemic. Some police services are also noticing more domestic violence reports. One in 10 women is very or extremely concerned about the possibility of violence in the home, suggests a Statistics Canada survey about COVID-19.

Rates of gender-based violence were high in Canada, even before the pandemic: on average, every six days, a woman is killed by her intimate partner. Thousands of women, girls, and trans and non-binary people now face a heightened risk of violence at home with COVID-19 isolation measures, whether it takes the form of emotional, physical or sexual abuse.

Where risk factors of gender-based violence at home already exist, like a sense of control, possessive jealousy, and misogynistic attitudes, various pandemic-related stressors can become triggers, including:

  • job losses and reduced income
  • food insecurity
  • fears about contracting the virus
  • exacerbated mental health issues
  • disrupted family routines, services, and resources

Quarantines and social isolation mean that abusers and those they harm are in close proximity around the clock and other people aren’t around to see the signs of violence and intervene.

Social isolation also creates new barriers for those experiencing abuse or violence to access services from shelters, sexual assault centres, and other community supports, which have continued to operate while facing many new challenges. Under normal circumstances, it’s difficult for women in abusive relationships to confidentially reach out for help, but the pandemic-related circumstances have made it even harder.

In light of this, it’s important to know about Signal for Help, a simple one-handed sign someone can use on a video call. It can help a person silently show they need help and want someone to check in with them in a safe way. Learn more about the signal and how to respond should you receive it.

While the federal government and Ontario provincial government have announced emergency funding for women’s shelters and other services for those who experience gender-based violence, we know more funding is urgently needed. Services for violence prevention and intervention were already struggling to meet needs before the arrival of COVID-19, particularly in the wake of the #MeToo Movement and the Globe and Mail’s Unfounded investigation.

Women remain highly concentrated in professional roles that put them on the front lines of both health care and jobs considered essential services during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The three industries with the highest ratio of women versus men in Canada are health care and social assistance (82.4 per cent), educational services (69.3 per cent), and accommodation and food services (58.5 per cent), reports Statistics Canada. In 2015, “around 56 per cent of women were employed in occupations involving the ‘5 Cs’: caring, clerical, catering, cashiering and cleaning.”

Women health-care workers — including doctors, nurses, and paid caregivers — don’t have the privilege of isolating at home because we’re depending on them to deliver care. The vast majority of those in the following health-care roles are women: nurses, medical lab technicians, respiratory therapists, and personal support workers. Women who work as cleaners, cashiers, and food-service workers also continue to play key roles in serving the public at grocery stores, drug stores, pharmacies, and other essential businesses and services that remain open during the pandemic.

It has also been reported that gender bias in the design of personal protective equipment may make it less effective for them, and hamper their work. Given that the equipment may be designed with men’s bodies and proportions in mind, women may find that the equipment doesn’t fit or work well.

Given that women are concentrated in sectors and industries hardest hit by isolation measures, a higher proportion of women lost their jobs in the early stages of the pandemic.

Women accounted for 63% of the 1 million jobs lost as of March 2020, and 70% of losses by workers aged 25 to 54. As construction and manufacturing shut down in April, a sharp increase in men’s unemployment narrowed, but did not close the gender gap in employment loss. At the end of July, in all age groups, the recovery among men remained more advanced. Women had recouped roughly half of February-April employment losses (53.7%), and those aged 25–54 saw the largest gains. Women’s job growth has been mostly in part-time work, regaining less than one-third of full-time job losses (31.0%) by July’s end. A summer boost in part-time work in hard-hit industries such as retail and food services spurred employment among low wage women workers, but their rate of recovery continues to be slower than that of higher paid employees, lagging behind by more than 15 percentage points (81.8% vs. 97.4%).Single-parent mothers were more likely than mothers in two-parent families to have experienced job loss or reduced hours: more than a third (37.6%) compared to just over one quarter (25.7%) respectively, February to April 2020. In April, 202,000 single mothers were in the paid labour market, and another 122,000 were facing significant obstacles to employment, including access to childcare. By June, single-parent mothers had recovered only 23% of their hours, and those with kids under the age of six had recouped only 19.6% of pandemic employment losses.With travel shut down, layoffs have hit women working as flight attendants, cooks, servers, and cleaners in travel and hospitality. As stores have closed or reduced hours, there have been cutbacks for retail workers, many of whom are also women. Aside from industries shut down by COVID-19, women also make up the majority of Canada’s minimum-wage workers and part-time workers. These positions are precarious at the best of times.

The pandemic is intensifying economic barriers women already face throughout Canada, and research suggests that, long term, pandemics can take a higher toll on women’s incomes than men’s.

Poverty in Canada is already gendered. Women make up 60 per cent of those in Canada who are economically “struggling”, meaning that they report difficulty covering basic expenses and may need pay day loans or food banks to get by.

The COVID-19 pandemic means new challenges to delivering support services for those who are struggling, such as food banks that can’t meet demand, and closures of public services including schools, community centres, and libraries.

Although federal and provincial aid and relief announcements are encouraging, many women are still at risk of falling through the cracks.

Women in leadership positions have taken powerful and visible roles in the response to COVID-19 in Canada and internationally. Some of them, such as Canada’s 10 chief medical officers, have quickly become household names.

At the same time, it’s important to remember that there are many women leaders who aren’t making headlines, but they are also on the front lines of the COVID-19 response, making difficult decisions and taking action, including nurses, community-service providers, elder-care workers, and store clerks. These essential roles are often carried out by diverse women, and they are in practical leadership roles in our neighbourhoods, at risk to themselves and their families.

Although women remain under-represented in formal leadership roles in Canada, it’s not surprising that women’s leadership in Canada’s response to COVID-19 has been applauded. There is significant research to suggest that inclusive leadership leads to greater success; both gender and racial diversity are correlated with stronger business performance.

There are many reasons why women’s leadership through the pandemic has the potential to blaze new trails:

  • The emergence of diverse role models, particularly in the STEM arena, can motivate other women and girls to pursue these roles.
  • More diversity in leadership helps to break down stereotypes about who and what makes a good leader.
  • When more diverse women are involved decision-making processes, they’re in a position to bring a stronger gender lens to the process.

Surveys conducted at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic suggested that women in Canada were carrying a bigger burden of worry about the situation than men.

Forty-nine per cent of women reported feeling “very worried” about the outbreak, compared to 33 per cent of men, indicated a poll by Abacus Data. The data also showed that men were less likely to follow the advice of public health officials around staying home and social distancing.

Seventy-five per cent of female respondents were afraid of a family member contracting the virus, compared to 64 per cent of men, suggested an opinion survey by Leger.

An April 2020 survey by Vanier Institute of the Family suggested that more women than men reported feeling anxious or nervous very often or often due to the pandemic, and that more women than men reported difficulty sleeping very often or often since the beginning of the pandemic.

The Foundation launched the Tireless Together Fund: a national emergency fund to provide critical support to women and girls through the COVID-19 crisis.

The Foundation is also working with the Government of Canada to deliver emergency funding to some services, and advocating for a gender lens on policies implemented during and in the aftermath of the pandemic.

Learn more about how your support helps women and girls during the pandemic.

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