In The Female Brain, Louann Brizendine recalls how, at Yale Medical School during the 1970s, professors dismissed the behavioural and psychiatric study of female bodies. “We never use females in these studies,” the faculty argued, “their menstrual cycles would just mess up the data.”
It was only after the 1990s that female-centric data began to earn the attention it was due. But amid the cacophony, the whispers of the most vulnerable rarely pierce the din. The lack of women-centric data is a more pressing concern than we might think.
How do health statistics distinguish COVID-19’s effects?
Diseases affect men and women differently, and COVID-19—whose gendered variation is multi-dimensional—is no different. The risk factors associated with Covid-19 are more common among men, which puts them at a higher risk of infection. Additionally, men tend to be employed at higher rates, which results in higher occupational exposure among men than women. According to a study conducted by Dujrudee Chinwong, smoking affects the vulnerability of infectious respiratory diseases and commonly men smoke more than women. Another study in the American Journal of Infection Control states that women are more diligent about following health-related hygiene practices.
A common medical wisdom holds that biological and immunological factors affects behaviour in both genders, which in turn influences infectious transmission. Women mount a stronger innate and adaptive immune response than men as they have more immune-related genes in their genomic structure. A hormonal discrepancy between men and women is hypothesized to play an important role in the progression of the disease. Oestrogen, progesterone and androgens regulate the progression of any disease. Oestrogen, the female sex hormone, has an anti-inflammatory effect, which protects women from the disease’s severity. The X chromosome and the hormones also protect women from infection. Hence, the value of a database that could assist epidemiologists to understand COVID-19 mortality is self-evident.
The Gendered Home and Economic Space
COVID-19 has sharpened recognition of the ‘gendered spaces’ that transfer more burdens to women. As children stay at home, care workers in the family become yet more burdened still. Moreover, the threat of domestic abuse escalates, as does the pressure to manage household expenditure after a reduction in daily income. So, too, small over-populated homes pose a grave health risk for women — one that makes a quarantine unmanageable, even when imposing one would be otherwise necessary.
Any response to COVID-19 depends on the collection of data that specifically concerns women. At present, in a list of sex-disaggregated data available on the UN Women platform, India lies nowhere in sight. Instead, in the absence of individual country-level data, most studies look at the Asia Pacific region as a single entity. This filters our understanding of female welfare and impairs relief efforts.
Scarce data availability is an old problem in Social Policy. But the problem is not so much a function of collecting new data than one of complacency in how we deal with the data we already have. We should take steps to curate data targeted on women if we plan to stop the pandemic’s effects. Zubaan, a publishing house under Kali in India, run by Padma Shri awardee Urvashi Butalia, launched a project “Through her Lens” that captures women in lockdown and narrates their stories. Qualitative initiatives like these emblematise the intersectionality of feminist and artistic movements; but to form policies, there is an urgent need for more organised, medically informed and policy-oriented data. Until then, it won’t do to blame our ignorance on messy periods, like the medical school professors of yesteryear.
This blog post was originally published on the Daily O, which can be found here.
Note: This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of the Social Policy Blog, nor of the London School of Economics.