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The coronavirus crisis is disproportionately impacting women who have already been hardest-hit by ten years of Tory austerity, argues Karen Buckley

When the Tories came to power in 2010 (at first in coalition with the Liberal Democrats) they inflicted a punishing and unnecessary regime of austerity cuts to benefits, public expenditure and services. In the process, they shifted responsibility from the public to the private sector. Sadly, this has caused widespread, disproportionate and devastating harm to society’s poorest, most vulnerable and minority groups.

The toll of austerity on women

Disadvantaged women are one of the groups especially effected. As Dawn Butler MP said in 2018, “women are still burdened with 86% of Tory cuts.” The Women’s Budget Group see this as coming from the “triple whammy” women face of increased reliance upon benefits, their traditional role as unpaid carers and their over-representation in the public sector.

Women are also generally poorer than men. As a worldwide average, women collectively earn slightly more than 50 per cent of men’s total earnings. In Britain, a woman earns 82p for every £1 a man earns and faces a much greater chance of living in poverty.

Cuts to public services have also had a huge impact. Public services have long been vital for women’s lives and wellbeing, from state-funded childcare to domestic violence aid, to help for mental health issues, housing, welfare advice services, and legal services.

Lone parent mothers are particularly vulnerable due to their high poverty risk (at 50 per cent). As are disabled women who are more likely to face poverty and social exclusion so austerity has been particularly punishing. For women of colour, the adverse effects of austerity, along with the issues of class and gender, are compounded by those of race.

Coronavirus compounded

Then into this mix we get the Coronavirus crisis.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that the Tory government has catastrophically mismanaged the Coronavirus pandemic. According to Worldometers, the deaths per million in the UK are 658, whereas a comparable European country such as Germany, has had 109. It has also been reported that there have been over 64,500 excess deaths since this year. Each one of these is a personal tragedy for those involved.

Throughout the crisis, we’ve seen the Tories make a catalogue of errors such as imposing lockdown too late, not having adequate PPE, not protecting vulnerable care home residents and staff and failing to properly lockdown. Whilst other comparable countries who did manage the virus better are safely opening back up, health leaders warn the Tories are risking a disastrous second wave.

Not surprisingly, the coronavirus pandemic has been especially challenging for the groups most affected by the Tories’ punishing austerity regime, and this includes women.

The low-paid, young people and women are likely to be the hardest hit by the coronavirus shutdown of businesses including restaurants, hotels, pubs, retailers and transport services. Women are about one-third more likely than men to work in a sector that was (or still is) shut down, as they make up the bulk of retail and hospitality workers. One in six female employees worked for businesses hit by the lockdown, compared with one in seven of their male counterparts.

Women also seem to be bearing the brunt of the economic fallout. Young women were hardest hit by redundancies early on, when female-dominated sectors such as retail, hotels and hairdressing salons shut overnight.

It appears that women working from home are also doing more of the housework and childcare than men, while the charity Carers UK estimates that around 4.5 million people have had to become unpaid carers for sick or disabled relatives during the pandemic, with a majority of these being women.

Inequalities intensified

Women (and parents/carers) are also adversely affected by many shops and offices opening up as many schools and nurseries are not fully open due to concerns around safety. This is causing huge problems for women who need to work but who fear for their and their family’s safety. Often women are forced to juggle work and childcare, take unpaid leave, use up annual leave or ask for furlough. These difficulties have intensified since the crisis began and have damaged women’s equal access to employment. A big challenge for working mums, before as well as during the coronavirus crisis, has been how to balance paid work with caring responsibilities. The TUC points out that government policy is

‘failing to recognise or meet the needs of working mums in this time of crisis, alongside existing limitations on rights for working parents in the UK….. Without immediate strategic action on the part of government, many women could lose their jobs or pay as they struggle to balance work and care.’

They recommend a series of measures such as a limited form of job retention, flexible working, cash injection to the childcare sector to prevent collapse, adequate parental leave and prevention of unfair redundancies on women with childcare.

The pandemic is hitting BAME women disproportionately hard according to research for the Women’s Budget Group. The findings suggest that a combination of long hours and poverty may reflect their over-representation in low-paid jobs on the frontline, such as social care. Research has also that showed the virus disproportionately kills ethnic minority Britons, which is another area of big concern. By law, ministers have to conduct an equalities impact assessment on their coronavirus legislation to anticipate risks for women and minorities. But so far, they have refused to publish an equality impact assessment of its recovery strategy.

The safety of women during the pandemic has also been a big concern. Domestic abuse killings doubled over 21 days during lockdown and visits to the Refuge website have been up by 950%. Rufuge warned of the “terrifying ordeal” faced by women and children trapped and isolated at home with abusive partners during the Coronavirus turmoil. Given that services for domestic abuse were already severely stretched by austerity, this is extremely worrying. Moreover, as a group of MP’s have warned coronavirus upheaval would have “devastating consequences for a generation” if the government fails to urgently tackle the issue.

This brief look at the many issues and difficulties affecting women shows how the Coronavirus crisis has exacerbating long-standing and existing issues stemming from unnecessary austerity and inequalities. These, along with the many other injustices created by the Tory government, cannot be ignored and must be addressed and dealt with urgently. The lives of our women and especially disadvantaged women and their children depend on it.

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