The social and economic impacts of COVID-19 on women in Asia and the Pacific Over one year into the COVID-19 pandemic, secondary waves continue to unfurl across fragile economic and social landscapes, with the most devastating consequences for individuals and groups with pre-existing vulnerabilities.
The Asia-Pacific region continues to struggle with catastrophic COVID-19 outbreaks. As lockdowns and restrictions persist, inequalities that underscore the pervasive impacts of the pandemic threaten to further exacerbate conditions for those most vulnerable. Disproportionate increases in inequalities for women across health, protection, education and livelihoods have resulted from the pandemic. Emerging evidence over the past year confirmed that the pandemic had a regressive effect on gender equality. Globally, women’s employment is 19 per cent more at risk than men’s, and the gender poverty gap is expected to worsen well into 2030.
With vaccines now being distributed in over 165 countries, hope for a transition into a postCOVID-19 world is on the horizon, however, what will that look like for women and those most vulnerable? Globally, 84 per cent of vaccines have been administered in high-and upper-middle-income countries, and only 0.3 per cent of doses have been administered in low-income countries. The vaccine rollout in Asia and the Pacific has been relatively slow and unevenly staggered amid devastating secondary and tertiary outbreaks. Countries with widespread conflict and long and protracted crises, such as Afghanistan and Myanmar, face complex vaccine rollout plans with additional challenges for supply chains and fragile response systems, and increasing risks for the largely female health-care workforce and vaccination teams. Vaccination campaigns are struggling to reach those most vulnerable. Marginalized populations living in the most fragile humanitarian contexts are also facing overwhelming compounding inequalities that will be further exacerbated by prolonged COVID-19 outbreaks. Vaccine equity and women’s participation in COVID-19 response mechanisms are essential to achieving herd immunity and developing the resilience to recover from wider social and economic impacts.
Asia and the Pacific is the most disasterprone region in the world, with 75 per cent of disaster-affected populations living in the region and more than one quarter of the world’s conflicts taking place there. Too often a disproportionate number of women are left behind, as are members of other vulnerable communities, including people living with disabilities; lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex and other people (LGBTQI+); and people with diverse sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, sex characteristics; refugees and internally displaced people; migrant workers; indigenous peoples; and those living in rural or hard-to-reach areas. These vulnerable groups are continuously disproportionately affected by conflict and/or natural disasters, yet their unique insights, particularly in humanitarian settings, are usually overlooked and undervalued as resources that ought to be leveraged to improve crisis responses. COVID-19 presents an opportunity for restructuring and creating a “new normal” in which no one is left behind.
Estimates suggest that global gross domestic product (GDP) growth could be $1 trillion lower in 2030 than it would be if women’s unemployment simply tracked that of men’s in each sector. However, if action is taken now to achieve best-in-region8 gender-parity improvements by 2030 (including making investments in education, family planning, maternal health, and digital and financial inclusion and correcting the unequal burden of unpaid-care work related to child care and caring for older people), an estimated $13 trillion could be added to the global GDP, and $4.3 trillion could be added to the GDP of Asia.9 Additionally, women workers contribute an estimated $3 trillion annually to the global health sector, half of which is in the form of unpaid care work.10 COVID-19 has highlighted the extraordinary and indispensable contributions of women across sectors, particularly in areas crucial to response and recovery efforts. However, women and people from diverse social groups and geographies need to be given equal opportunities in leadership and decision-making roles to ensure response efforts maximize outcomes for everyone and “building back” is inclusive and sustainable.