Prioritizing Pandemic Preparedness: A Gender-Inclusive Approach for the EU

April 2024
By Eleni Stavrou*

As a member of the European Parliament, I have closely witnessed the devastating impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on our societies. Beyond its immediate health implications, the pandemic has exposed vulnerabilities in our global systems, highlighting the urgent need for enhanced pandemic preparedness. While we focus on bolstering our defences against future health crises, it is imperative to adopt a gender-inclusive approach, recognizing and addressing the unique challenges faced by women during pandemics.

The European Union (EU) has a pivotal role in leading the charge for effective pandemic preparedness, not only within its member states but also on the global stage. The EU’s collaborative framework allows for the pooling of resources, expertise, and best practices to strengthen health systems and response mechanisms. However, our approach must evolve to prioritize gender sensitivity, acknowledging the disproportionate impact of pandemics on women.

During health emergencies, women often bear the brunt of caregiving responsibilities, both within their families and as frontline healthcare workers. The closure of schools and childcare facilities during lockdowns exacerbates this burden, forcing many women to juggle caregiving duties with remote work or household chores. Consequently, women are at a higher risk of burnout, economic insecurity, and mental health issues, further widening existing gender disparities.

Moreover, women are more likely to experience domestic violence during crises, as confinement measures trap them with their abusers and limit their access to support services. The EU must prioritize the protection of women’s rights and safety during pandemics, ensuring access to essential support services, shelters, and legal assistance. Strengthening social safety nets and promoting gender-responsive policies can empower women to seek help and break free from abusive environments.

In addition to caregiving and domestic violence concerns, women also face heightened risks in healthcare settings during pandemics. Gender biases and stereotypes can influence the allocation of medical resources, leading to inadequate access to testing, treatment, and reproductive healthcare services for women. The EU must promote gender mainstreaming in healthcare policies, ensuring equitable access to healthcare resources and addressing the specific health needs of women, including maternal and reproductive health.

Furthermore, women are disproportionately represented in low-wage and informal sectors, which are particularly vulnerable to economic shocks during pandemics. Job losses, income insecurity, and lack of social protection mechanisms can push women further into poverty, exacerbating pre-existing inequalities. The EU should prioritize gender-responsive economic recovery measures, including targeted financial assistance, vocational training programs, and support for women entrepreneurs, to mitigate the socio-economic impact of pandemics on women.

Education is another critical aspect of pandemic preparedness, yet women and girls often face barriers to accessing quality education during crises. School closures disrupt learning opportunities, exacerbate educational inequalities, and increase the risk of dropout, particularly among marginalized communities. The EU must invest in digital infrastructure and remote learning initiatives to ensure continuity of education for all, with a focus on addressing the specific needs of girls and young women.

Beyond the immediate response to pandemics, the EU must also invest in long-term resilience-building measures that address underlying gender inequalities. Empowering women economically, socially, and politically is essential for strengthening community resilience and ensuring a more equitable recovery from future crises. This includes promoting women’s leadership and participation in decision-making processes, as well as investing in gender-responsive research, data collection, and analysis to inform evidence-based policies.

In conclusion, pandemic preparedness requires a holistic and gender-inclusive approach that recognizes and addresses the unique challenges faced by women. The EU has a pivotal role to play in championing gender equality and promoting women’s rights in pandemic response and recovery efforts. By prioritizing gender-sensitive policies, investing in women’s empowerment, and ensuring equitable access to resources and opportunities, we can build more resilient and inclusive societies that are better prepared to navigate future health crises. As members of the European Parliament, it is our responsibility to advocate for these principles and work towards a more gender-inclusive approach to pandemic preparedness within the EU and beyond.

*Member of the European Parliament, Cyprus – Democratic Rally