Alastair Osborne looks at the impact of the COVID19 pandemic on equality and finds that government decisions are helping to ensure that the socio-economic impact of lockdown will be disproportionately felt by women and girls.

What’s the difference between a man with corona virus symptoms and a woman? None, except the woman earns less. Okay, perhaps that’s not the best joke to start my stand up routine, but it is true. In the battle for equality the story is always one of struggle, advancement, backlash and then struggle again. While men are more likely to die from COVID19, women are facing the full blow of the socio-economic fallout from the ongoing pandemic as well as seeing a reversal in equality gains made over the last two decades.

Professor Catherine Bertini, of Syracuse University and former executive director of the United Nations World Food Programme, speaks of “the disproportionate impact of COVID19 on women and girls magnified many times over because of their roles as caregivers, as mothers, as cooks. And ultimately as the people who are holding families together.” Bertini first highlighted this issue back in 1995 in a seminal speech titled “Women eat last”. While experts are still gathering data on the current crisis, past studies have all shown that women are more affected by food insecurity than men, often allocating food to others before themselves.

We are also seeing surging levels of violence against women and girls, including child marriages as a result of lockdown conditions worldwide. The most vulnerable, poorest children are those least likely to return to school after a crisis. Many girls, especially adolescents, may never return to school. A Kenyan government health survey has revealed that an estimated 4,000 school-going adolescents have become pregnant during the COVID19 lockdown.

Here in the UK we had to have a debate on the need to extend free school meals over lockdown and the extended enforced school holiday period. The case had to be made. On a world scale it is glaringly obvious. Without linking food programmes to educational provision large numbers of children, especially girls, will never return to education after the pandemic. The struggle for equality will be set back decades.

Harriet Harman added to the Equality Bill a duty to show the socio-economic impact of all policies, demonstrating the link between equality and poverty and discrimination. The Home Secretary and Equalities Minister in the subsequent coalition government, Theresa May, dropped the requirement, dismissing it as “socialism in one clause”. It was a moderate and sensible effort to provide a framework for equality that recognised the role of poverty and socio-economic disadvantage.

The chancellor warns of the economic fall out from the pandemic, but what about the setback to the fight for equality? Hard won gains for women will be vulnerable to the post COVID19 drive to get things going again. Expect to see a backlash with a vengeance. Childcare will no longer be a priority; gender pay gap audits will become a luxury; pregnant women’s rights at work a drag on economic recovery. Before this crisis the World Economic Forum predicted it would take over 250 years to reach economic parity between men and women. The devastating truth is that COVID19 has set that figure back by generations.

Anyway! Back to my stand up routine. Why do men go for the higher paid jobs like doctors and TV presenters while women settle for lower paid jobs like women doctors and women TV presenters?