The last two years were disastrous for many Canadians, but they’ve been particularly devastating for women. The pandemic revealed the true extent to which our systems fail them, particularly in times of crisis. The direct and collateral damage of COVID-19 was remarkably gendered, with few prospects for real change in sight.
There’s been plenty of coverage of the “she-cession,” which saw women bear the brunt of COVID-19’s economic impacts and job losses, as well as its mental health toll on mothers. There’s been much less discussion about the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on women’s access to health care, which has put their well-being and lives at risk.
From elderly women in long-term care (LTC) homes to new mothers and younger women in need of reproductive health care, females across the board suffered from a lack of access to timely and appropriate care. In some cases, the lack of care was more akin to abuse. In too many, it led to needless suffering and deaths.
A new Postmedia-Leger survey intended to uncover Canadians’ impressions of our health-care system two years into the pandemic also revealed a disturbing gap between the health-care experiences of men and women.
Female respondents were significantly more likely to report being unable to physically see a doctor (44 per cent versus 32 per cent of males), more likely to have had a scheduled medical test or procedure delayed (26 per cent versus 19 per cent of males) and more likely to have avoided the health-care system due to COVID-19 concerns (42 per cent versus 30 per cent of males).
While we’ve generally known that many Canadians weren’t able to access in-person care over the last couple years and many also experienced delayed procedures, there’s a dearth of data on who, exactly, was the most impacted. Anecdotal reports raised alarm about reduced access to reproductive care, limited access to postpartum supports and delayed breast cancer screenings, but firm numbers are hard to come by.
While Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberals were quick to announce a $325-million package to address the the impacts of COVID-19 on women’s health overseas, there’s been little acknowledgement of the issue at home. Provincial leaders, who are chiefly responsible for health care, are equally mum on the topic.
Indeed, two years into the pandemic, most provincial health systems, from family doctors to emergency-room and long-term care, look nearly identical to their already-flailing state prior to March 2020.
This is particularly unforgivable in the LTC system, where COVID-19’s first waves saw large numbers of elderly women medically abandoned in ways that, had they occurred in a war zone, we’d describe as torture. Ultimately, many experienced needlessly early, painful and lonely deaths.
Women make up the majority of LTC residents and are twice as likely as men of the same age to live in nursing homes. They’re also much more likely to live in LTC homes with lower standards of care. This resulted in women accounting for over half of Canada’s COVID-19 deaths in the early months of the pandemic, despite death rates being higher for men in almost all other industrialized countries (due to a higher prevalence of underlying conditions like heart and liver disease).
It was only after widespread vaccination that Canada’s gendered death rates stopped being outliers and fell in line with the rest of the world. Until vaccination began, nearly 80 per cent of the nation’s COVID-19 deaths were reported in LTCs and living in a long-term care was one of the most important risk factors associated with dying from COVID.
While vaccines may have stemmed the bleeding, they ultimately do not address the systemic failures of our health system, which sees women denied the same standard of care as men, even in normal times. Pre-pandemic studies have shown that Canadian women had increased odds of perceived unmet health-care needs, even after adjusting for multiple factors, such as socioeconomic class.
Elderly women were more likely to live in private homes with lesser standards of care, where seniors were more likely to die within six months. Women’s pain was often diminished by health-care providers, creating a particularly large gap in heart-disease outcomes. Moreover, access to reproductive care was severely limited in rural areas, and inadequate maternity care led to birth outcomes that fell short of World Health Organization standards.
Women’s advocacy groups have long called gender-based inequities in Canadian health care the “health gap” — and the pandemic has only widened it. Moving forward, it will be all too easy to forget the horrors experienced by elderly women, many of whom are no longer with us. It’ll be politically convenient to undersell how the last two years (and counting) will negatively impact younger women’s and mothers’ health-care outcomes for years, if not decades to come.
How many diagnoses have been missed? How many women lost trust in systems they already had ample reason to distrust? How many missed out on vital treatments?
Canada’s health-care system is undeniably broken, but the consequences of this failure aren’t equally borne by men and women. If we are to truly repair Canadian health care, fixing systemic gender inequality must be a priority — but, first, it has to be acknowledged by those in charge.
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