Camila Pimentel and Denise Pimenta
The COVID-19 pandemic has reinforced the idea that in times of social and economic disruption, women (and girls) are the most affected. Sanitary emergencies impact all areas of life, from health to economy, and the COVID-19 pandemic is deepening pre-existing inequalities. Therefore, it is necessary to consider gender as an important lens in any strategy and response developed worldwide.
Brazil, the largest country in South America, more than 2 million confirmed cases and almost 80 thousand deaths, is still struggling to lower the curve. With a history of pervasive inequalities, it’s been a challenge to implement health protective behaviors in the population. In addition, we’re facing a misalignment between the federal and state governments, in which the former has not offered adequate support or campaigns to reinforce the importance of protective measures, sometimes even discouraging it by saying that coronavirus is just a “little flu, and there´s nothing to worry about”.
Although, the country has a universal health and educational system, gender equality does not follow the pace. In comparison to men, women are underpaid and do the majority of care activities, paid and unpaid. This means that, in times of pandemic, they will perform the core of protective actions, for themselves and for others.
How are COVID-19 care and prevention strategies affecting women?
The main COVID-19 care and prevention strategies that are being recommended include social isolation and physical distancing, as well as usage of masks and a cleaning routine. As far as we know, these are the best way to protect people from getting infected. However, it is necessary to think that these health care strategies have different impacts on the population in general, in terms of barriers and difficulties to access resources to achieve efficient protection. Thus, it is important to ask, specifically, what these strategies mean for women in their diversity, subjective and economically speaking.
According a 2018 report from the Brazilian government, almost 35 million people in the country do not have water supply, and women are the majority amongst them. So, it is important to ask how women living in poor sanitary locations can cope with the routine of cleaning everything (people and things) and washing hands when they do not have access to water? This is one of the many scenarios that researchers are advocating for an intersectional approach to better understand the different impacts of COVID-19 pandemic.
Women are on the frontlines of the COVID-19 response in Brazil
In the Brazilian Universal Health System (SUS, the acronym in Portuguese) most health professionals in the frontline of COVID-19 response are women. For those who are mothers as well, or have elderly people who they care for, it is another layer of stress or burden, as their support network diminished or is placed at risk. Specially in lower classes, where many Brazilian families are facing paternal abandonment, families count on a feminine support network where younger generations leave their children with their grandma or an older aunt the go to work. Since these are the high-risk group, and with daycares and schools closed, women who are in the frontline at health services are facing a disruption of mental health and economic distress.
Furthermore, social isolation or even physical distancing do not form a palpable reality, especially when their children are very young. Breastfeeding, bathing, taking care of tasks are some examples of unpaid activities that involve physical proximity. In that case, being pregnant or having a baby during this pandemic is also adding worries to women’s lives. On the internet, it is common to come across memes, games and graphic illustrations about the “nonsense” and impracticality” of isolation when you have young children.
Likewise, living in the peripheries or slums in Brazil means existing in tiny domestic spaces (30 or 40 square meters), in which many people, of several generations, cohabit. “The house and the street” or the private and public spheres, are not that separated as a Brazilian anthropologist, Roberto DaMata once studied. Public and domestic spaces are entangled as the street can be seen as an extension of the private spaces. With a history of 300 years of slavery and almost no proper policy to integrate Black people, economically and socially speaking, structural, environmental, and interpersonal racism are still marking the lives of those who live in the “favelas”. In this sense, when it comes to the Brazilian context, recommendations for social isolation and physical distancing need to be developed taking account different housing realities, as well as gender roles and race inequalities. Unfortunately, this is not even close to becoming a reality in the Brazilian governmental response.
Gender-based violence is another important layer to intersect with the pandemic context. Brazil, has a high rate of violence against women (VAW), occupying the fifth country in the world ranking of gender violence. Taking social isolation and intermittent periods of more restrictive quarantine, many women faced the necessity of cohabit with their aggressors. In São Paulo state, the deaths of women doubled in April, from the start of quarantine measures.
Women’s sexual and reproductive health and mental health
In terms of reproductive and sexual health, an increase of unwanted pregnancies and maternal death rates are also expected. Maternal screening and other health services are being discontinued, disrupted, or being offered in poor conditions. In this scenario, we can ask ourselves how is women’s mental health? By asking this, we are not assuming women as a homogenic category, but reinforcing the necessity of taking gender as an important lens to develop policies that take into account of the many intersectionalities and diversities of when we talk about women.
Using a gender lens is fundamental in order to elaborate public policies and government actions that are socially and culturally appropriate for a variety of contexts which represent Brazilian women’s lives during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Camila Pimentel is a Social Scientist and researcher of the Zika Social Science Network at Fiocruz Pernambuco, Brazil. Denise Pimenta is an Anthropologist and researcher of the Zika Social Science Network, at Fiocruz Minas, Brazil.