COVID-19 Pandemic Disproportionately Affected Women in the Americas

Woman looking out the window

PAHO report shows that gender inequalities in health have increased in the region; calls for disaggregated data to design more inclusive response.

Washington, DC, March 8, 2022 (PAHO)- The COVID-19 pandemic had a disproportionate impact on women in the Americas, contributing to increased gender inequality in health and threatening women’s development and well-being, a new report from the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) says.

The report Gender and Health Analysis: COVID-19 in the Americas, launched today during a webinar to mark International Women's Day, explores the effects of the pandemic on women and girls, and presents findings in areas such as health, employment and social welfare. The event included the participation of Karen Sass, Director of Disability of the Ministry of Social Development National Secretariat of Care and Disability of Uruguay and H.E. Hugh Adsett, Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Canada to the Organization of American States (OAS).

"This report underscores that gender inequality is an ongoing social, economic, political and health crisis, which has been exacerbated by the pandemic," PAHO Director Carissa F. Etienne said. "But it also highlights where we need to work harder to create a more equitable, resilient and sustainable future," she stressed.

During the pandemic, the role of caregiver exposed women to an increased risk of contracting COVID-19. Comprising the vast majority of healthcare workers, women were on the front line caring for patients and accounted for 72% of all COVID-19 cases among healthcare professionals in the region. "If they had been better protected from the start and with reasonable shifts, many infections could have been avoided," Dr. Etienne said.

The physical and emotional costs of working long shifts in hospitals and the worry about COVID-19 exposure followed many female healthcare workers home, where they were often also responsible for 80% of chores. The study points to several research that have shown that women working in healthcare are more likely to suffer from anxiety and depression, insomnia or burnout than their male counterparts.

During lockdowns to curb the spread of the virus, women also spent more time at home, a place which was unsafe for many. Calls to domestic violence hotlines shot up by 40% in some countries during these periods. In others, they dropped dramatically, indicating that women could have faced new barriers to seeking help.

COVID-19 has also had a marked impact on women's health. The report highlights that, while data shows women are overall less likely to develop severe disease from COVID-19 than men, they were also more likely to be diagnosed later. And once they were diagnosed, they died earlier, suggesting that many did not receive timely adequate care.

Meanwhile, the re-direction of healthcare services to cope with the COVID-19 emergency left too many women and girls without the support they needed to stay healthy. In Latin America and the Caribbean, 1 in 4 adolescents did not have access to family planning services, leaving them exposed to unwanted pregnancies, health risks, and school dropouts, among others.

The pandemic also aggravated maternal mortality. Expectant mothers had to balance the fear of COVID-19 with the uncertainty of whether they could safely deliver their babies in a health facility, and too many did not receive the care they needed in time. In the past two years, more than 365,000 cases of COVID-19 have been reported in pregnant women in the region, and more than 3,000 of them have died.

"We must address these profound inequities to tackle the current health crisis and build a better future for women and girls in the region," Dr. Etienne stressed.

The report also warns that the incorporation of a gender approach in the response to the pandemic has been insufficient. Gender does not feature in analyses of the direct and indirect effects of the pandemic, making it difficult to recognize and understand the different consequences COVID-19 has had on men and women.

"The pandemic demands a radical transformation in the generation, analysis and use of disaggregated data to identify health inequalities," PAHO Assistant Director Jarbas Barbosa said. "Without quantitative and qualitative data and evidence, our efforts in gender equity and other aspects of health are significantly compromised," he added.