Gender perspective in the COVID-19 pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic affects us all, men and women. For several weeks now, in countries like Italy or Spain, most of the population have been confined to our homes; some people, a minority, continue to go to their workplaces with an obvious danger of infection, for them and their families.

We are all threatened and we are all concerned. But the COVID-19 pandemic has also a gender reading and it is important to know it to fight with the best possible weapons in this war that has found us all without any weapon.

In a prestigious publication (The Lancet, vol. 395, Issue 10227, pp-848. March 14, 2020 ) It has been highlighted that the knowledge of how the disease affects men and women differently is a fundamental step to understand its effects, primary and secondary, both in individuals and in communities, which is essential to make effective and equitable health decisions. It seems that the reliable data available so far, disaggregated by sex, show a similar incidence among men and women in terms of spread and development of the disease; however, these same figures show a higher mortality among men based on immunological and sociological reasons, such as the greater instances of smoking among men, who also suffer more than women from cardiovascular diseases, which constitute a risk factor in this new disease. It appears that this data, from China, is also applicable to Italy or Spain.

But there is other data that highlights the especially feminine or feminized risks posed by COVID-19. It is emphasised in this essay that the vast majority of nurses and other auxiliary personnel who deal with the seriously ill in a more direct and dangerous way are women, which again is perfectly extrapolated to our countries. Although it is not said in the study that I echo, I believe that the same happens with those who work in hospitals or nursing homes where especially vulnerable people are admitted, in which the workers are mostly women. These women fulfil different functions, ranging from direct care of the sick, to others such as cleaning the centres and utensils, kitchen or laundry, in which the female sex is over-represented and, therefore, has greater opportunity for infection.

I want to draw attention to the formal and informal care tasks that have traditionally been carried out mostly by women and continue to do so nowadays. The current situation only increases the need for this type of work. I have already pointed out that in hospitals the vast majority of nurses, caregivers par excellence, are women who currently work in especially dangerous and difficult circumstances.

But there are also many women who carry out care tasks at home, taking care of the less seriously ill or children with closed schools; they are also the ones who carry out most of the domestic chores, which are still predominantly feminine and are more complicated today than ever in the confinement situation, probably causing special confusion, chaos and stress. The repercussions that all this can have on the health of these women is still an impossible future to predict, but there is no doubt that they will exist and will not be negligible. Suffices to point out, as an example, that, according to figures from the Spanish Ministry of Equality, in these weeks there have been an increase in the report of instances of gender violence; Thus, the data for the month of March 2020 compared to March 2019, show that calls to the 016 line have increased by 10.52%, 597 pertinent calls more than in the same period of the previous year, from 5,674 to 6,271; in turn, online consultations to 016 have increased by 182.93%, 75 more consultations in total (source:

From an economic point of view, the weeks that have passed since the start of this enormous health crisis have already shown that another economic crisis will derive from it, still unpredictable, but which will undoubtedly be very important; probably the most important economic crisis in generations. Many people are losing their jobs and many more will lose them in the coming weeks and months. We do not yet have reliable data, but as always happens in these cases, women with worse jobs and worse job opportunities will also be likely more affected than men.

To date, the Spanish Government, like other European states, has issued several rules specifically aimed at regulating the situation generated by COVID-19 and trying to mitigate, as much as possible, the perverse economic and social effects of the situation, generated by the confinement of people in their homes, with the consequent slowdown in the economy.

In the case of Spain, it is the Royal Decree Law 11/2020, of March 31, which adopts urgent complementary measures in the social and economic field to deal with COVID-19.

This is a text that is aimed at adopting measures to mitigate the difficult situation in which economically vulnerable people may find themselves, whether prior to and aggravated by the COVID-19 crisis, or precisely because of it.

This legislative body includes measures of a social nature, aimed at supporting vulnerable workers, consumers, families and groups, with special emphasis on those who need it most. Many are the points treated and many the measures that are foreseen in it. Due to my specialisation in civil law, I especially highlight the suspension of the eviction procedures of vulnerable households without housing alternatives, the extraordinary extension of the leases of habitual residence, the moratorium on tenant debt for tenants of habitual residence in a situation of economic vulnerability, the support measures for rent with public guarantee lines, the moratorium on mortgage debts for the acquisition of the habitual residence and the moratorium on other credits and non-mortgage loans that people in a situation of economic vulnerability have, particularly consumer credit.

The truth is that the author of this norm has not been very careful when undertaken its drafting. The measures are complex to understand, with very cumbersome requirements and with formal and material requirements that, in my opinion, many of the targeted individuals and families will not be able to meet.

In this legal text, there is no direct allusion to the gender perspective, despite the fact that the  informative principle of the Spanish legal system, Article 4 of the Organic Law 3/2007 of March 22, for the Equality of Men and Women, recognises the principle of equality between men and women. No mention is made of this perspective when referring to the special situation of vulnerability, although I am convinced that many of the people and many of the vulnerable households described in the standard are women or are supported by women. This will happen in the vast majority of cases of single-parent families, particularly vulnerable also from the economic point of view and even more in this particular situation; also in the homes of elderly people who live alone, who are also mostly women, or where two or more elderly people live and where the caregiver is also mainly a woman; Some relevance is given to households with people with disabilities, for the most part also cared for by women, but it does not seem enough to me. In summary, I think that the norm should have alluded directly to this type of families and thought about their special situation of vulnerability.

The aforementioned RD-Law 11/2020, of March 31, does make an express reference to the group of domestic workers, aware that it constitutes an especially fragile group in a situation such as this. The rule assumes that these workers will not have an unemployment benefit in the Spanish legal system when remaining at home because of the current circumstances, having had their employment contract terminated or their hours of work greatly reduced, totally or partially losing income, already in itself quite scarce, as it is known that it is a very poorly paid job. In the present situation, article 30 of the aforementioned RD-Law creates an extraordinary and temporary unemployment subsidy, from which domestic employees who have stopped working or reduced their activity as a consequence of COVID-19 may benefit; the subsidy will be of a variable amount depending on the remuneration they stop receiving and the reduction in the activity experienced.

Undoubtedly, it is a norm with a clear gender orientation, since this group is the most feminized in Spain – according to the only available figures of the INE, not very up to date, domestic service is formed almost entirely of women (97.8%).

I have no doubt that the intention is good and such a norm is necessary; However, I do not know if it will be very effective, since the requirement to be able to access the subsidy is that the domestic worker is integrated into the Special System of Domestic Employees of the General Social Security Regime. Official sources as of February 2020 show just under 400,000 people affiliated with this scheme, the lowest level since 2013. If we calculate that there are some 18 million households in Spain, and that approximately 20% have some type of domestic service , which is all the more intense when more income enters the home, we find more than three and a half million domestic workers; obviously, a simple subtraction shows that most of them will not be able to enjoy the subsidy provided for in the new decree.

The Spanish Government has also published RD-Law 12/2020, of March 31, on urgent measures regarding protection and assistance to victims of gender-based violence, aimed at reinforcing protection for said victims.

In reality, a large part of the content of Chapter I of this RD-Law, which is the one that establishes concrete measures, adds little to what had already been ordered a few weeks ago in a special contingency plan for victims of gender-based violence in this emergency situation. It is true that some measures are clarified and new ones are specified, such as the provision of alternatives to telephone assistance to the victim, which is not very convenient when the victim lives with the aggressor, a frequent circumstance in the current situation. When the response to the emergency involves the abandonment of the family home, the victim and his offspring are expected to be transferred to an emergency center, reception, or similar “equipped with personal protection equipment”, it is understood that this is referring to COVID- 19 PPE, a forecast that will be difficult to meet due to the evident shortage of said equipment, as expressly pointed out by workers who, due to their professional activity, may have direct contact with the victims.

Of course, none of the initiatives mentioned is superfluous; however, I believe that this legal text is not satisfactory, both in excess and in lack thereof. The former, because again it is a complex norm that, at least with regards to Chapter I, is excessive, in the sense that none of the measures contemplated in it require the rank of law. The latter, by default, because I am not so sure that these measures are sufficient. First, because the current situation of confinement and the lack of direct contact with other people put the victim of gender violence in a situation of vulnerability that is still much greater than what is usually typical of this circumstance; and secondly, because it seems to almost completely forget groups of women who also suffer different types of violence and who are now in a situation of high risk, such as elderly women or women with disabilities.

In speaking about people with disabilities, I do not want to fail to mention the neglect that public administrations seem to have so far for people with disabilities in these dramatic circumstances. It is well known that people with disabilities are in a special situation of vulnerability; this vulnerability is greatly increased in circumstances like the current, in which they need more support than ever. Both Italy and Spain have ratified the New York Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. At this moment I highlight two of the articles of this international treaty; Article 25, which declares the right of people with disabilities not to be discriminated against in their health care; and Article 6, which recognises that women and girls with disabilities are subject to multiple forms of discrimination and imposes on States the obligation to guarantee the exercise and enjoyment of their rights.

I have no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic can also have a disability optic. I am particularly concerned about the case of people suffering from mental problems and psychosocial disorders for whom the measures imposed by governments may be difficult to understand; some disabilities probably make the disabled person more likely to become unwell, and in that case, it is also likely that their care will be more demanding. Our health systems, under enormous stress these days, cannot abandon them.

In short, many other women’s collectives deserve special attention from our rulers in these tragic circumstances. To name a few, I think that one should think about the particular health situation of pregnant women and women in labor and those who work in cleaning and disinfection in particularly dangerous public places; about the special vulnerability of refugee and immigrant women, or of the poorest of the poor, such as prostitutes or those without a roof. None of them should be forgotten by our authorities, as they seem to have done so far.

María Paz García Rubio, Professor of Civil Law at the University of Santiago de Compostela