Here we go again. As experts submit different letters to the UK government supporting existing restrictions related to the Covid-19 response, or encouraging the government to do more and quicker, the question as to whether to lock the whole of the UK down again and to what degree is back. One issue, however, that is missing from debates about the crisis is the gendered consequences of lockdown.
Back in March 2020, I was alarmed at how many feminist friends were calling for a lockdown in the UK. Having studied the gendered impacts of pandemics, outbreaks, and health emergencies on women I knew any lockdown would not be great for women in the UK. We could expect rises in domestic violence, increased childcare and domestic burdens on women, limits on paid employment and potentially career reversals.
And that did not even cover the fact women make up the majority of healthcare workers in the world or the potential secondary impacts on women’s sexual and reproductive health - people prioritise Covid-19 over pregnant women or see the pandemic as an opportunity to reduce women’s reproductive rights. All of these issues have been prevalent in past health crises from HIV/Aids, to Ebola and Zika.
As it turned out, it was the same for Covid-19. Projects I have been involved in on gender and the coronavirus over the last six months have shown a similar pattern for women in the UK. Domestic violence has gone up. In heterosexual couples women increased their time spent on domestic labour and decreased their time spent on paid work. And women did the majority of childcare and homeschooling when the schools shut. They took an economic hit in a myriad of ways from being more likely than men to lose their job to working in sectors worst affected by lockdown.
The chief executive of the Royal College of Midwives warned that high-risk pregnancies could be missed on account of women not seeking out maternity services during the pandemic. If you are a disabled woman, a woman of colour, a woman working for minimum wage or under, or a single mother, you can multiply these issues further: Covid-19 means we need a new word for intersectionality.
What strikes me about this list of gendered impacts is how many are linked to lockdowns: childcare, employment, domestic violence, domestic burden. Women bear the brunt of lockdowns. Lockdowns are therefore a feminist issue.
The government does not really recognise this, other than some concessions to childcare support from extended families. There is little to suggest that things will be different for women this time. Instead, with Covid-19 fatigue, more fear, and an increase in secondary health issues among the wider population, it could be a lot worse.
Widening inequality and punishing women through lockdown does not have to be inevitable. The government can start with learning from the first lockdown: greater funding to support domestic abuse and homeless organisations, closing the pubs before closing the schools. It can listen to the recommendations of women’s organisations to increase child benefit, abolish the two-child benefit cap, pay Universal Credit on day one of a claim. Moreover, it can build incentive structures into the Job Support Scheme to ensure women do not disproportionately lose their jobs.
In many ways lockdown is inevitable. The UK does not have an effective track and trace system in place, we can only hope that there is now greater provision for carers and healthcare workers. So we are back where we were in March, needing a blunt tool to fix previous errors. But really, knowing what we know about how lockdowns impact on women’s time, wellbeing, and their lives, can you be a feminist and support a lockdown? I think not.
Professor Sophie Harman is an expert in global health politics and the author of Global Health Governance. She has worked with UN Women, Women’s Budget Group and the Fawcett Society on the gender aspects of Covid-19 and has been called as an expert witness to the UK government on issues of global health security.