Global Governance Institute


Why implementing maternity leave policies should be easier after Covid-19

16 June 2020

The Covid-19 pandemic has prompted rapid policy interventions around the world. Global leaders should demonstrate the same level of determination when it comes to women's health, argues Salwa Mansuri (GGI Research Assistant).

Family Sign

This article was originally published on 10 June 2020 by Oxford Political Review under the title "If pregnancy was a symptom of coronavirus and labor a pandemic, paid maternity leave would be a universal policy #StayAtHome".  

As of the 5th of June 2020, the total global death toll due to coronavirus is 396,267 [1]. Coronavirus information has engulfed every news channel, every social media account gaining immense coverage. Unsurprisingly, considering these numbers and the fact that it is a pandemic, loss of life does deserve this sort of attention and call for action.  However, in 2017, The World Health Organization reported the death of 4.1 million children before the age of 1 [2]. In 2017, UNICEF also highlighted 7,700 maternal deaths in Afghanistan [3] and over 5,500 in Bangladesh [4] with numbers increasing ever since. Why did infant and maternal mortality rates in 2017 not attract significant attention and concern from health experts, world leaders and the international community as a whole like the coronavirus situation has in 2020? Certainly, the rate of spread of coronavirus and its associated mortality statistics do not match up to maternal and infant deaths. However, this does not justify that the lives of a few are any less valuable than the lives of many and shouldn’t gain as much coverage. Should the international community only take action when mass deaths occur? Has the 21st century placed a quantitative value on human life? The health of women has never attained the limelight due to stereotypes and cultural factors that barricade the concern and attention they deserve.

According to the US Census Bureau, 91%, about 3.2 million [5] nurses worldwide are female. This largely stems from the fact that women are classified and characterized as primary providers in the household, personally and professionally with little focus on their own health [6]. They tend to place cultural norms and the respect of their families rooted in these stereotypes at a pedestal. Be it female genital mutilation amongst African and Middle Eastern cultures to validate virginity and femininity [7] or the need for hygienic sanitary products surrounding menstrual taboos, women are inherently expected to compromise on their own well-being [8]. At workplaces in the professional front, the situation is no different. Women professionals are torn between seeking a higher position in the corporate ladder, breaking the glass-ceiling and embracing motherhood especially when they need not in the first place. The lack of paid maternity leaves only exacerbates this dilemma [9]. A research paper [10] states that “a month increase in paid maternity leave can reduce infant mortality rates by 13%”. Today, if the above finding is altered to “a month of social-distancing can reduce coronavirus mortality rates by 13%” health policies in the professional front worldwide would be more stringent than ever. The lack of financial security due to unpaid maternity leave exacerbates the intersectional oppression between the cultural demands of motherhood and potential domestic violence during lockdown [11]. Another aspect of consideration is that women account for more than 75% of frontline healthcare workers [12]. Considering the pandemic, exposure to the virus and overtime hours becomes a necessity and not necessarily a choice for pregnant frontline workers which unpaid leaves only exacerbate at the cost of women’s health.

It took less than a few weeks [13]  for educational institutions to implement social-distancing policies for their students, for states to enter a lockdown for their citizens, for healthcare companies to introduce affordable insurance health policies [14] for the population and for the largest firms, banks, technology companies to implement “remote working policies” through virtual means [15] for their employees. Where are health policies that cater to the differentiated needs of women in unprecedented circumstances like present times? When the pandemic has called for the creation of unique policies overnight, why isn’t the same effort and creativity visible in the fabrication of gender-sensitive policies without the need to compromise on women’s health. Recently, an Economic Times article stated that in India 4 million IT workers [16] were informed about the social-distancing policy overnight resorting to virtual work and distant learning at an extremely short notice. If IT companies can revamp their work strategies for the health and safety of their employees and the general population, the same companies can implement maternity leave policies overnight as well. How can companies implement Covid-19 related policies effectively overnight but for policies that relate to the health of women, they often take a backseat? Furthermore, the managing director of an IT company claimed that despite several contingency plans, “Nobody could have created a playbook for what we are witnessing today” [17]. If IT companies or companies in general could plan and implement policies to combat the inevitable spread and unpredictability of the coronavirus overnight, sure they can implement maternity leave policies: a relatively well-studied and foreseeable phenomenon overnight too.

The present-day scenario calls upon economically developed and underdeveloped states alike to strive harder than ever to keep their economies afloat. With the US as the world’s largest economy, President Donald Trump has implemented the direct payment plan through cheques to prevent economic constraints Americans currently experience [18]. This response has been even more swift than the US response during the 2008 financial crises proving that health is a priority for world leaders. Ironically, according to the Guardian, the US has absolutely no policy for paid maternity leaves. The Family and Medical Act provides 12 weeks of unpaid maternity leave but only 60% of employees are eligible for it [19]. Considering this, the US and countries worldwide can and should devise policies that establish national statutory paid maternity leaves soon enough as they have proven the effectiveness of implementing health policies during this pandemic. Even developing countries have managed to revamp their budgets to accommodate the cost of the pandemic. On the 12th of March 2020, President Akufo-Addo, declared commitment to a $100 million financial plan to improve Ghanaian health infrastructure and facilities [20]. When developing countries are able to set aside a specific budget for coronavirus along with 12 weeks of paid maternity leave [21], it is economically viable for developed countries to devise policies for the health of women.

Global responses to the Covid-19 pandemic extend beyond the parameters of state actors.  This pandemic has paved a pathway for current and potential Global Health Governance more than ever before with non-state actors at the forefront of fostering collaborative efforts [22]. As of the 4th of June 2020, the World Bank has pledged to sign $287 million loans to improve healthcare in Tamil Nadu [23] and approved $1.45 billion financial package by the US through the Job Creation Development Policy Loan for job creation in Jordan [24]. If the international community can prove to engage in effective multilateral dialogue to save the lives of millions, why is the same promptness not visible to reduce infant mortality rates through paid maternity leave policies?

Consider this: if pregnancy was a symptom of coronavirus, wouldn’t states take swift action to implement paid maternity leaves overnight for “health and safety reasons” even if it did compromise on national economies the same way the pandemic has? If pregnancy was a symptom of coronavirus, would states be as laid-back now, amongst a pandemic?  Women’s health is as important as the health of everyone else. If the world can unite to prioritize the health of everyone, sure it can unite to implement paid maternity leaves universally for the health of women. It can. It must.



[1] “Coronavirus World-O-Meter Update Live: Country-Wise Total Number Of Cases, Deaths – April 23”. 2020. Deccan Herald. https://www.deccanherald.com/international/world-trending/coronavirus-world-o-meter-update-live-country-wise-total-number-of-cases-deaths-april-23-827195.html.

[2] “Infant Mortality” 2020

[3] “Afghanistan – Number Of Maternal Mortality Deaths – 1990-2017 Data | 2020 Forecast” 2020

[4] “Icddr,B – And Neonatal Health” 2020

[5] “Male Nursing Statistics” 2020

[6]  Jiménez Ruiz and Moya Nicolás 2017

[7] (“What Is FGM” 2020)

[8] Anand and Garg 2015

[9] (Hideg et al. 2020)

[10] (Nandi et al. 2016)

[11] (“What India’s Lockdown Did To Domestic Abuse Victims” 2020)

[12] (“An Increased Risk: About 75% Of Health Care Workers In Most Cities Are Women” 2020)

[13] (Lu 2020)

[14]  (Dubey 2020)

[15] (Hinchcliffe 2020)

[16] (Sangani and Chandrashekhar 2020)

[17]  (Sangani and Chandrashekhar 2020)

[18]  (“US Plans To Pay Americans As Part Of $1Tn Stimulus” 2020)

[19] (“Maternity Leave: US Policy Is Worst On List Of The World’s Richest Countries” 2020)

[20] (“Akufo-Addo Release $100 Million To Enhance Ghana Coronavirus Preparation Plan” 2020)

[21] (Stumbitz et al. 2020)

[22] (“Non-State Actors In Official Relations With WHO” 2020)

[23]  (“World Bank Signs $287 Million Loan To Improve Healthcare In Tamil Nadu” 2020)

[24] (“US$1.45 Billion To Promote Inclusive Growth And Job Creation In Jordan” 2020