Women’s health must be considered in the COVID ‘recovery’

Women’s health must be considered in the COVID ‘recovery’

women's health

To mark “Women’s Health Week” this week, the Minister for Health and Ageing Greg Hunt urged all Australian women to attend medical appointments and health checks, especially during lockdown.

It was an important call. Especially as we know that women have put off seeing a specialist or doctor as a result of lockdown. And especially as we also know that vital screening services, like BreastScreen, have faced temporary closures as a result of the pandemic.

He also reminded women of the importance of COVID-19 vaccinations, describing it as “the biggest single thing Australian women can do to protect their health and the health of their communities.”

He then went on to promote the spending package his government has already allocated towards supporting women’s health, including funding for cervical and breast screening, Medicare subsidies for testing of IVF embryos for genetic faults, money for the Pelvic Pain Foundation Australia and for Periods, Pain and Endometriosis, among other things.

As we wrote at the time of this funding announcement, there were some good initiatives in this package. Particularly, some significant wins for the organizations included.

But it wasn’t anywhere near enough.

The conversation on women’s health doesn’t end with funding a small number of specific services and research initiatives.

And’s Hunt’s messaging this week was nowhere near strong enough regarding the urgent need to prioritise women’s health (even leaving aside news published Thursday that Hunt turned down an offer to meet with Pfizer bosses in June, regarding access to millions of more doses of the vaccine).

Indeed, it’s difficult to ignore the significant omissions from Hunt’s press release that he used to mark Women’s Health Week.

There was no talk of the pandemic’s rising mental health toll on women.

No talk of the toll on women’s safety, especially during stay-at-home orders where women may find themselves unable to escape their abuser.

There was nothing on the lack of self-determination for women in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities to fund and meet their own health and welfare needs.

There was nothing on continued lack of funding to meet disability services, and the fact that women are typically picking up the bulk of this caring work, unpaid.

There were many critical pieces to women’s health that were missing. Pieces that Hunt’s own government could do so much better to try and address.

Instead, Hunt kept his statement to some of the more obvious links between the pandemic and women’s health — including the need to get vaccinated, as well as the need to attend screening and doctor’s appointments.

The reality is that the current and longterm consequences on women’s health during these pandemic years go well beyond what Hunt suggested.

First and foremost, there’s the toll on women’s safety, the rising numbers of calls to domestic violence service providers who note the pressure-cooker environments that have been created due to lockdowns, and the lack of crisis accommodation available.

There’s the potential toll on lower levels of physical activity for some (not all) women, particularly those who are simply don’t have the time and energy for exercise, as well as for those with caring responsibilities.

There’s the lack of affordable and accessible childcare. There’s the system of paid parental leave that entrenches gender roles at home. There’s the pay gap, and so much more.

There’s the very real toll of burnout: the fact the majority of those undertaking frontline service positions are women, and they’re exhausted and often – in the case of nursing and early childhood education – expressing a strong desire to leave the industry, despite the growing need for skills and talent in these areas.

Burnout is not only for those who are directly on those frontlines, it’s impacting women who have taken additional loads on top of the already impossibly heavy amounts of paid and unpaid work they were already carrying. The additional caring responsibilities, more domestic responsibilities, and of course managing remote learning activities to support those undertaking school from home. On asking women about their ambitions just prior to these latest Winter lockdowns, we found a massive 39% believe that “burnout” could stand in the way of them achieving their ambitions over the next two years.

There’s the toll of lost salaries and wages. Of lost time in the workforce, of lost of career opportunities. We’ve seen where women have taken on the brunt of job losses, where women have given up looking for work, where women have stepped back to part time work or given up work altogether – not because they wanted to or necessarily could, but because they had to, in line with the additional loads they’ve taken on due the pandemic.

The loads women have been carrying during the COVID pandemic are difficult to measure. The damage they’re doing is not always easy to see, beyond pay gaps or jobs data or various bits of research regarding current health concerns.

But these loads have heavy consequences that may not be fully realised until well after this current calendar year and the worst of this pandemic period.

In late 2020, a new report revealed that the health and wellbeing of Australian women had plummeted that year, with rates of anxiety and domestic violence at a record high.

It came from Jean Hailes, which delivers the most comprehensive such research in the country, and found that one in three women had experienced symptoms of anxiety during the 2020 calendar year, along with one in four reporting symptoms of depression.

What will the 2021 results show? What will the added insecurity, the continued lifting of these impossibly heavy loads, the fears about the lingering pandemic do to such rates?

At the time of the release of the 2020 report, Greg Hunt described the findings as “sobering and powerful”. He said that they would help determine the next steps of the national Women’s Health Strategy to 2030.

And yet, what’s been done? $354 million for women’s health, a package over four years.

There are around 13 million women in Australia. This funding amounts to less than $30 per woman, over four years.

Meanwhile, as women are told to get vaccinated and attend doctor appointments this Women’s Health Week, other matters ultimately hindering women’s health go unmentioned.

You can’t care about the health and wellbeing of Australia’s women, without delivering on affordable childcare, without considering the pay gap, without considering the lack of affordable and safe housing and crisis accommodation. Without thinking about how women in more feminized industries, and therefore often in caring sectors, are being impacted by the pandemic. And without considering how things like our current system of paid parental leave, superannuation payments and other matters, ultimately favour the earning capacities of men.

And yet this week, women are reminded to book those appointments. To get screened. And to get vaccinated.

When we talk about the “COVID recovery” in the Australian context, we must think beyond big spending to support big infrastructure projects that create big job opportunities for big industries that are dominated by men. Or worse, to project that don’t even benefit men but rather support those with deep pockets and strong political connections.

If only we could reconsider the “Gas-led recover” for something much more beneficial to wider society.

We must consider where women’s health sits in the “economic recovery” equation, including how we can ease these loads women are carrying.

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