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The COVID-19 pandemic has affected us all. However, it’s clear women across the UK have faced particular challenges over the past year. From key workers, the majority of whom are female, to mothers supporting their children with home learning – often combined with working from home – women have shown incredible resilience, but at what risk to their long-term health? 

It’s essential that we look at how the pandemic has impacted women – particularly those experiencing other inequalities (such as disabled women and those from minority ethnic communities) – and importantly, what we as a society must do to counter these issues.

According to the UK Household Longitudinal Survey, women’s mental health deteriorated almost twice as much as men’s during the first lockdown, due to difference in caring responsibilities and social tendencies. This is no surprise, as women bore the brunt of pressures from home schooling, alongside fears of redundancy and greater feelings of loneliness. As many as 45% of women reported loneliness, compared to 29% of men. There has also been a rise in domestic abuse.

Both men and women have helped educate their kids at home, but recent evidence has showed women have shouldered more of the burden. During the first lockdown in April 2020, the ONS found that parents reported splitting home schooling equally between them, but by January 2021 this had increased to 67% of women in couples taking on most of the responsibilities. With home working set to become normalised post-pandemic, organisations would be wise to put efforts into ensuring that female employees are supported in juggling multiple pressures.

Women are also feeling the effects of the pandemic’s economic impact. Prior to the coronavirus outbreak, women were more likely than men to be in uncertain employment, making up 54% of those on zero-hours contracts and 74% of those on part-time hours. They tended to be overrepresented in shutdown sectors such as retail and hospitality. More than half of women working part-time were furloughed by June 2020, compared with 41% of men. This predisposes them to greater job insecurity as the job retention scheme comes to an end.

As the latest lockdown unwinds, the disproportionate impact on women must be factored into policymakers’ decisions for the future. Ensuring the social security system provides an adequate income is essential for a healthy life – for everything from quality housing to buying healthy foods. Job creation schemes should focus on better quality jobs. Businesses in industries such as hospitality, which predominantly employ women, should be incentivised to keep people in work and seize the opportunity to normalise more flexible working.

We have a unique opportunity to take on the learnings of the past year and ensure that health, and the future health of the nation, is at the heart of our recovery. The Health Foundation has been looking at the implications of the pandemic on people’s health through our COVID-19 impact inquiry. It will provide a robust analysis for government on how we can tackle these inequalities head on. We owe it to every woman who has played their own part in the COVID-19 response to ensure that we build back fairer and protect their future health for decades to come.

Mehrunisha Suleman (@MehrunishaS) is a senior research fellow for the Health Foundation's COVID-19 impact inquiry. The inquiry will be publishing its final findings report in July 2021. Sign up for updates.

This article was originally published by City A.M. on 5 April 2021.

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