As the entire world experiences its first modernday pandemic, there is a great deal of COVID-19 related data and talk about the potential of AI and machine learning. Models are being used to determine everything from the peak of the outbreak in increasingly granular detail; which populations are adhering to shelter in place orders based on mobile phone network data; and when countries will run out of hospital beds, protective gear, and ventilators. We also have greater insights into which flight patterns impacted the spread of the virus to which parts of various countries more than others. And data on fevers generated by increasingly adopted digital thermometers are being leveraged to help predict upcoming COVID-19 hotspots.
Overcoming past gaps in gender disaggregated data in public health and medicine, current reporting numbers of new cases and deaths by age and gender is a promising and eye-opening development. What we are observing in the data is that COVID-19 is disproportionately killing more older men with co-morbidities despite relatively equal numbers of men and women contracting the virus. It raises questions about whether the differential experience across age and gender lines is biological, behavioral, or both. The term “gender” focuses on social and cultural differences related to sex- male, female, and other selfidentification, and is most often used to highlight inequities and discrimination experienced by women and girls and others. COVID-19 is shedding significant light on many of the social and cultural dimensions that shape our societies and the experiences of men and women.
What the various data models are not yet doing is helping us to explore and understand engendered responses to the pandemic, despite the reality that almost everything about COVID-19 it is gendered. According to an analysis on gendered approaches to the health workforce published in The Lancet, it is estimated that 70% of the global health workforce is female of which 50% are unpaid caregivers. However, very few women in the health workforce are engaged in decision-making processes that impact their work and their livelihoods.
The pandemic is also highlighting that the proportion of men and women in each segment of the essential and non-essential workforce and decisionmaking authority varies dramatically. At home, men and women are balancing caregiving and professional responsibilities under shelter in place orders. In a recent piece published by The Atlantic which takes a historical look at the differential effects of pandemics on women and men, The Coronavirus is a Disaster for Feminism, there are fears that COVID-19 will set gains made by women over the past 50 years back due to the nature of women’s roles in the workplace and at home. In addition, UN Women is observing an increase in the reporting of sexual and gender-based violence to hotlines throughout the world with a call to action to support community based efforts and more effective use of technology to prevent and respond to acts of violence. For this, we need better mechanisms for reporting and tracking incidents of violence and action taken. In addition, it is well documented in the peer-reviewed literature that men and women manage and process information and stress differently, which will have a significant impact on the mental health services needed during and after the pandemic.
History doesn’t have to repeat itself if we choose not to let it, and for the health and wellbeing of our current society and future generations we need to act now. Much of what the world is currently experiencing and will likely experience in the aftermath for years to come will have strong gender implications. We need to start prioritizing data and frameworks that enable us to understand the various health and social determinants of health ways that can inform more supportive policies and future research. The field of public health is predominantly female and yet in many settings there have been very few women engaged in the public deliberations related to COVID-19. And headlines throughout the world from Forbes to a rand of other news outlets are reporting early indications that countries with female heads of state are performing better in relation to overall numbers of cases and numbers of deaths as they prioritize people over profits and business. What decisions did the heads of state in Denmark, Finland, Germany, Iceland, New Zealand, Norway, and Taiwan take and when did they act that enabled more effective responses to outbreaks in their countries?
COVID-19 offers the opportunity to consider and examine gender both retrospectively as well as into the future, but we need to set a baseline and develop the analytical frameworks and AI now and progress from here. It provides a platform to leverage AI for a more effective engendered datadriven approach to future pandemic prevention, preparedness and response that goes beyond body counting into the social and cultural dimensions of health. To do this we need more women to be equitably represented and engaged in leadership and decision-making roles as well as in and at all levels of research, data analytics, and algorithms development related to COVID-19 and across all aspects of health and life.
Patricia N. Mechael, PhD MHS is co-founder and Policy Lead at HealthEnabled