In the United States, people have started calling it a “Shecession”, a recession that hurts women much more than men—a direct reference to the 2008 crisis that was nicknamed the “mancession”, when job losses were heavily concentrated in construction and manufacturing. This time, women are the main victims of the social and economic disruption caused by the pandemic. And not only in the United States, where, despite making up less than half of the workforce, they accounted for 55% of jobs lost in April—with women of color (Black and Hispanic) hit worse. In Britain, mothers are one-and-a-half times as likely as fathers to have lost or quit their jobs during lockdown.
The COVID-19 crisis is not gender-blind. This situation reflects the fact that women are overrepresented in sectors that have been most impacted by the crises, such as childcare, education, or tourism. The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that 58.6% of employed women work in the services sector around the world, compared to 45.4 % of employed men.
Since women tend to have underpaid jobs, with less access to social protection, they benefit less from some of the safety nets that some countries are implementing. Women are also overrepresented among informal workers, who work in precarious conditions and for whom isolation is not possible. Take domestic workers, the majority of whom are women: 76% of those who were impacted by the pandemic were in informal employment. Their fragility has been made evident, most of them have been completely abandoned both by their States and by their former employers.
Women are also on the front lines of the battle against the virus. Globally, 88% of personal care workers and 69% of health professionals are female, running much more risk of getting ill. In Spain, for instance, 71.8% of infected health-care workers are women. Beyond jobs and income, the Covid-19 crisis brings together all the ingredients of a devastating cocktail that could widen inequalities and put the gains under threat that women have achieved after fighting painstakingly for decades
The pandemic has also made the unfair social organization of care systems evident. Women undertake the lion’s share of unpaid care work. Even before the crisis, women and girls living in poverty and those from marginalized groups were already spending 12.5 billion hours a day caring for others for free. This amount of time will skyrocket now with the confinement of elderly people, the closure of schools, and the necessity to take care of growing numbers of ill family members. As the economy is starting to reopen in some places, but with educational systems still paralyzed, many mothers have to give up their jobs, especially those that cannot be performed remotely, with a disastrous impact on their access to labor worldwide.
Stuck at home, women are further exposed to gender-based violence, in particular domestic violence and sexual abuse. They have to spend much more time with their aggressors with scarce possibility of asking for help. The UK, for example, registered a doubling in the number of feminicides in the first three weeks of lockdown.
Finally, the crisis is also jeopardizing access to sexual and reproductive health rights. A variety of factors, from highly restrictive abortion laws to lockdown and travel restrictions, are making it extremely difficult for women to get safe access to these essential health care services.
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So, how to prevent setbacks that could be as disastrous as they are long-lasting? More redistributive public policies have to step in. From universal access to health care, water and sanitation, education, and social protection, we must seize the window for more solidarity. It also means recognizing, reducing and redistributing unpaid care and domestic work, which requires investing in quality public services such as nurseries, health centres, and homes for the elderly.
"More redistributive public policies have to step in. From universal access to health care, water and sanitation, education, and social protection, we must seize the window for more solidarity." Of course, all these measures demand a massive investment of resources. Instead of mobilizing those, several developing countries focus only on external debt and capital flight. Terrified about increasing their spending, some of them—such as Mexico—are opting for continuing with devastating fiscal austerity measures. This is a mistake we cannot afford. With political will and the courage to overcome the pressure from powerful elites, there are many proposals on the table to ensure more revenues are raised for a fairer and sustainable future. At the Independent Commission for the Reform of International Corporate Taxation (ICRICT), of which I am a member, we have identified 5 key measures to achieve a sustainable economic recovery.
One of the priorities should be to require the digital giants, that have been at the forefront of tax avoidance, to pay their fair share of taxes. Ironically, they have been the big winners of the pandemic: the fortunes of Jeff Bezos (Amazon’s founder and CEO) and Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook’s) combined, for example, grew by nearly USD $60 billion in the past two months. Since the United States decided not to support a reform at a global level, countries should follow in the footsteps of India, the UK, France, and many others in introducing progressive digital service taxes.
As many multinationals are lobbying for tax cuts, allegedly to ensure the “reconstruction” of the economy, governments should resist. Studies show that factors, such as quality of infrastructure, a healthy and skilled workforce, market access, and political stability, matter much more when it comes to attracting investment. On the other hand, tax cuts have devastating consequences for social spending, with a direct impact on women.
Finally, it is time to tackle the question of transparency, regarding the richest and multinationals. For the first ones, it would allow governments to introduce an effective taxation of wealth, including offshore wealth. As for multinationals, governments must require them to declare in which countries they do business and report profits, in order to tax them accordingly. It is not acceptable that a company claiming state aid should continue to report high profits in countries with very low taxes, and losses in countries where it concentrates the bulk of its activities but where taxes are high, in order to avoid paying anything. As Gabriel Zucman—also an ICRICT member—has shown, more than 40% of the international profits of multinationals are declared in tax havens, depriving States of precious resources that could be invested in those who are suffering the most.
This crisis is impacting us all, but not in the same way. Among the worse losers are women and girls living in poverty and those who were just one crisis away of falling into poverty. One of the silver linings of this appalling pandemic has been that it has reminded us all, and even conservative governments—including the one in my home country, Chile—that public services are precious. Not only do they save lives, but they also keep us healthy and ensure the future of our children. It is urgent to maintain sufficient resources in States to rebuild societies and economies that are not only more prosperous and resilient, but also more equitable.