Year 2022 saw the gradual dislodging of the Covid-19 pandemic from the No. 1 public health emergency spot, as the usual suspects (dengue, pollution and so on) regained their prime positions. On the health front, we seem to be heading back to business as usual, which simply means that we are back to battling old enemies, instead of dealing with the horrible new ogre that had engulfed us like a tsunami. But those who survived a severe infection of Covid-19 are battling its shad-ow: Long Covid.
Is the economy, which got badly battered by the pandemic, also dealing with Long Covid? In this piece, I look at the long shadow of Covid on employment levels and women’s work (paid and unpaid). Throughout the pandemic, the Centre for Economic Data and Analysis (CEDA) at Ashoka University has been providing real-time updates on the health of the economy based on the Centre for Monitoring the Indian Economy (CMIE) data. Having been hit hard during the initial months of the Covid-19 pandemic, employment lev-els are recovering but have yet to re-tur n to pre-pandemic levels, Compared with January 2020, around 14 million fewer individuals — 4.5 million fewer men and 9.6 mil-lion fewer women — were employed in October 2022.
During the Covid-induced lock-downs, in absolute terms more men lost employment than women, which reflects the pre-pandemic male-female gap in paid employment. However, in proportionate terms, women lost more in the first year of the pandemic. Women’s participation in paid work gradually returned to pre-pandemic levels but with a fair bit of fluctuation.
“For employment and women’s work to emerge out of the long shadow of covid-19, we need to focus on labour-intensive manufacturing”
— Focus on Manufacturing
While urban employment (and hence manufacturing and services) took a hit, as businesses struggled to get back on their feet, employment in the agricultural sector increased, since agriculture provided refuge to returnee migrants and to the rural population at large. Accordingly, ur-ban women’s employment suffered more than their rural counterparts. We should note that the increase in agricultural employment could re-flect distress work, rather than gainful employment.
But the rise in agricultural employ-ment has slowed down in the past year: there was a 4% increase in em-ployment in agriculture from 2019-2020 to 2020-2021. This was followed by a smaller increase (2.6%) in 2021-2022. This has contributed to a de-cline in the rate of growth of overall rural employment.
We hear repeated references to India’s demographic dividend. It is true that we have a large and growing reservoir of labour power, but the increase in employment has not kept pace with the increase in the working-age population, when GDP has been growing at over 6% per annum on average. Unless the large and growing pool of poten-tial workers is productively employed, India cannot convert the demographic reality of a large pool of youth into a dividend. The jobless growth phenom-enon predates Covid, but the urgency of addressing this has become sharp-er in the shadow of the pandemic.
India has another under-utilised divi-dend: the productive power of women. Livelihood activities of families — farms, livestock, orchards, kirana shops, handicrafts, food products and so on — run on the backs of unpaid, unrecognised, unrewarded labour of women. These are activities that generate income for the family, and men participating in these activities are counted as workers (or in the labour force) but not women.
This is over and above the daily domestic chores (washing, cooking, cleaning, house maintenance) that is predominantly the responsibility of women. In India, women spend 10x the time that men spend on these activities. The expectation that taking care of the household is primarily the woman’s job is the chief constraint on women’s ability to take up jobs that involve commuting. Lack of safe and reliable transportation makes this constraint more binding.
Covid-19 and Women’s Work
In the first month of the lockdown, according to CMIE data, men stepped up and increased their share of domestic work. But by December 2021, the male-female gap in time spent on domestic work was greater than it was in December 2019. While work-from-home (WFH) became the norm for large sections of workers, informal workers whose nature of work, by definition, was outdoors (daily wagers, street vendors, facto-ry workers) did not have the luxury of WFH. Several women have always been home-based workers doing very low productivity jobs for a pittance. That work is highly vulnerable to econom-ic vagaries: if Zara decides to reduce the production of shirts, women who stitch buttons on these shirts are out of work. For employment and women’s work to emerge out of the long shadow of Covid-19, we need to focus attention on expanding rural non-farm em-ployment, especially labour-inten-sive manufacturing. To increase women’s entry into paid work, there is an urgent need to improve trans-port and provide subsidised cooking fuel. Research has shown that these aid female labour force participation (FLFP). Both public sector and pri-vate employers need to pay attention to gender composition of their work-force at all levels: recruitment, retention, reentry.
The lockdowns made families real-ise just how much work gets done at home every single day. This would be a good time to focus on shifting norms around domestic chores by adopting the 3 Rs: recognise, reduce, redistribute. This is only possible when women are in decision-making positions in both public and private spheres. Let us utilise Covid’s long shadow to make this happen.
(Views expressed are personal)
(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this column are that of the writer. The facts and opinions expressed here do not reflect the views of www.economictimes.com.)