UCL Minds


Transcript: Episode 28

How is the pandemic affecting women?

Episode guests with their photos


pandemic, people, experiencing, inequalities, women, lockdown, ethnic minority, felt, mental health, students, ucl, exacerbated, research, issues, week, homeschooling, mental health conditions, lots, higher education


Tamjid Mujtaba, Daisy Fancourt, Vivienne Parry


Vivienne Parry  00:02

Hello and welcome to Coronavirus the whole story, an award winning podcast about the pandemic and the incredible UCL research being conducted to understand it and combat it. My name is Vivienne Parry, I'm a writer and broadcaster and UCL alumna and your host these many long moons of tears and lockdowns. But I have to say that this week, there's a whiff of end of term air here in Coronavirus towers, as news of the success of the Pfizer vaccine broke and yes before all you folks at UCL right into say it's early days, it's not a silver bullet. What about the cold chain? We know we know. But that little glimmer has made us all feel that there is an end in sight, even if it's not going to be anytime soon. Now, this week is going to be the first in a two part special about how Coronavirus is affecting women. We've talked a lot about inequalities on this podcast because Coronavirus has not only focused attention on existing inequalities, but done its own thing to widen them and create whole new areas of concern. Many women I talked to are convinced that they've been the ones left holding the fuzzy end of the viral lollipop. And now new research from UCL has confirmed that women have found the pandemic and locked down more challenging than men. And so in this episode, my guest and I will be discussing why this might be the case. And next week we're going to focus on a particularly vulnerable group of women, women who are pregnant and new mothers. But first let me introduce my guests. I'm joined again by Dr. Daisy Fancourt, an Associate Professor of Behavioural Science and Health in the Institute of Epidemiology and Health. You may remember Daisy from earlier episodes when we looked at our lockdown was affecting our mental health. Daisy and her team have been conducting a large scale study to measure the impact of Coronavirus particularly on the population’s mental health. Now she's back to give us an update on this research. My second guest this week is Dr. Tanjib Mujtaba Principal Research Fellow in Curriculum Pedagogy and Assessment at the IOE where she researches STEM education as well as social and educational inequalities in society.

Daisy, the last time we spoke to you your study when it was in its very early stages and you were just starting to get results on how people were feeling about Coronavirus and lockdown. For our new listeners, just Could you give us a quick overview of the kind of numbers that are involved and how the study worked.


Daisy Fancourt  02:34

So we've been tracking experiences of over 72,000 adults living in the UK since the middle of March, just before lockdown came in. And our participants have been giving us data once a week about how they've been experiencing things psychologically and socially. So over the last 33 weeks or so we've collected over three quarters of a million surveys that's around one every 20 seconds across the pandemic, giving us a real time insights into how people are being affected. Now have to ask you, Daisy, when you put out yourself initially how many replies Did you anticipate getting? We'd optimistically hoped for 10 thousands but I think we were really taken a breath away by the enthusiasm from people for being involved in research. And I think lots of people wanted a chance to have a voice and to get their experiences and their views heard. And we've had lots of our participants writing in saying that this has not only been that voice, but it's also been an opportunity for them to check in on themselves every week and actually see how they've been doing and then make adjustments accordingly.


Vivienne Parry  03:34

It's been one of the huge successes of the whole Coronavirus episode. I mean, it's it's it's been remarkable. And hats off. Daisy, it's been fantastic. But tell me what were you looking for originally? And what have you found?


Daisy Fancourt  03:50

One of our main areas of focus was mental health. So seeing how people were being affected and we boost particular concern early on in the pandemic that for example, across lockdown, mental health might get worse and worse as the weeks drags on. But actually we kind of found the opposite from our research. Lots of people got very stressed and anxious and felt much more depressed before the lockdown came in perhaps worrying about the uncertainty of the virus. But once they had that safety and security of a decisive action and at what felt like a plan, lots of people's mental health started to get better and we found this improving as lockdown ease especially across the summer. But unfortunately over the last few weeks things have started to take a little bit of a downturn again, as we've headed into a second lockdown.


Vivienne Parry  04:32

Yes, it feels to lots of people that the second lockdown whilst you heard some people saying actually they were quite enjoying the first lockdown. A lot of people are now saying that the second lockdown is miserable.


Daisy Fancourt  04:44

I think for many people the first lockdown felt a bit like a sabbatical or a holiday there were all these plans of learning new languages, taking up hobbies having more time. And I think that wasn't really how most people experienced it. So now heading into the second wave of restrictions, I think I think people have had that gloss and potential excitement really taken away. And I also think lots of the potential adversities people have experienced over the last few months, from loss of income, loss of job bereavement, these things have also started to take their toll.


Vivienne Parry  05:14

And as we suggested at the beginning, the inequalities that occurred under lockdown. We're really very stark.


Daisy Fancourt  05:22

They were and I think one of the scary things we've seen is that many of the inequalities that unfortunately, we're used to seeing in our society, whether that's based on income, education, ethnicity, age, gender, many of these things have actually been exacerbated over the last few months making us feel like we're now living in an even more unequal society than we were before. COVID.


Vivienne Parry  05:42

And what about the effect on women,


Daisy Fancourt  05:45

women have, unfortunately, had a worse time psychologically across pretty much every single measure that we've looked at through this pandemic, anxiety, depression, stress, loneliness, isolation. And I think on the one hand, we sort of expect this, unfortunately, because women's mental health is often worse, outside of pandemic situations, but it's been concerning to see this exacerbated the gap between men and women has been greater than normal. That's some of the highest stress periods of this pandemic. And why do you think that might be? Well, I think that women were particularly burdened by things like child care, children not being able to go to school early on in the pandemic alongside their work. We also know that many women work in roles, for example, frontline health care roles where the stress of the job has been high. And also many women have worked in sectors that have been particularly badly hit or have not been allowed to reopen, and therefore have experienced employment issues. But I think there are a couple of other important factors as well. One of them is that women have had lower trust in the government to handle the pandemic. And this lower Trust has probably got alongside a low optimism, and therefore effective mental health. And there are also some women who've been experiencing domestic violence, abuse, they've had very challenging pregnancy experiences, or childbirth, or issues around family planning and contraception, that's added extra load, on top of what the pandemic itself has been bringing them,


Vivienne Parry  07:07

it seems to me that a lot of women have found that, you know, there is no equality, you know, in a lockdown in the sense that their partners, their male partners, career has taken precedence. And they're the ones left trying to juggle the family, do homeschooling and do their work as well. And that's been really hard.


Daisy Fancourt  07:33

It has, but if we're being brutally honest, these are inequalities that we see outside of pandemic situations. We're facing these for decades up till now. But I think what the pandemic has done is really shone a light on those inequalities and actually made us think it's not appropriate that these are still present in society and somehow looked over a lot of the time. So I'm guessing it was the kind of hope on my side here, that by highlighting these inequalities through the fact that they have unfortunately got worse during this pandemic, might that help us to address the fact that they are ever present as we move beyond COVID-19


Vivienne Parry  08:06

in terms of your other findings, or has Coronavirus, been exacerbating existing problems or creating new ones. So I'm thinking in particular about mental health. So some people have found that not having to have the kind of interaction and stress of a working life has actually helped them mental health, whereas others it's exacerbated it? What's the finding? there?


Daisy Fancourt  08:33

That's a really interesting question. And I think what we have seen overall is that the number of people experiencing mental distress has gone up, many of the cohorts are suggesting it's around a 50% increase in the number of people above thresholds that we consider clinically meaningful. So from around 18, or 19% of the population to around 27 28%, which is massive, it is massive. And I think that highlights that there have definitely been new cases as part of this. But in terms of people with existing mental health conditions, we've seen that in on average, they've followed the same kind of trajectory as people without mental health conditions. So being much worse early on in the pandemic, but generally showing improvements. But I think one thing that we know is that mental health talking about averages isn't necessarily always that informative. And that lumps together a lot of very different heterogenous mental health conditions. So we're actually doing work at the moment where we found that there are clusters of people whose mental health hasn't followed that pattern. Either it didn't get worse initially, or it did get worse and as either stayed bad or even continued to get that worse month per month. And we're doing work at the moment to find out who these people are. But it seems to be around intersectionality issues. So not just about what your diagnosis was or what your level of mental health was before COVID, but also about whether you were facing other kinds of risk factors, including, for example, being female.


Vivienne Parry  09:51

And what about people whose mental health has improved? Does it give us pointers as to how we might help this particular group in the future?


Daisy Fancourt  10:01

There are certainly behavioural things that have been coming through. So for example, people who've had more of a purpose, so they've been able to work from home or they've been able to volunteer, or people who've been able to put time aside and enjoy leisure activities or hobbies, these people's mental health has stayed better. And if people have increased these kinds of behaviours, their mental health has improved in subsequent weeks, whereas the people whose mental health got worse, or those who have experienced increasing burdens of things like child care, or people particularly who've spent more time on things like watching television, social media, especially following the news on COVID. So some of those messages we knew about before the pandemic, but the kind of natural experiments of the pandemic has really highlighted them. But we've also had points around access to mental health services, mental health care. And that's been disrupted for some people, either practically or because they've been worried about overburdening the healthcare service. And I think that's really highlighted the importance of continuity in health care provision and mental health care provision, especially,


Vivienne Parry  10:59

it strikes me daily, that one of the things that your survey has achieved triumphantly is that it's reduced the stigma of mental health problems. Because everyone can see that this is a huge survey, what they're experiencing is not just something that only they are experiencing, it's widespread, and it allows people to talk about these things.


Daisy Fancourt  11:23

It's really nice for you to say that. And it's certainly something we've been very aware of right from the start, we've done a lot of work with the media in forming newspaper articles, television programmes, documentaries, radio programmes, etc. Because we've wanted to get that message out that you're not alone in facing these kinds of problems. And the response we've had back from people has been really supportive about about feeling like they are part of a community going through this. And I think that's something that really helped us all in the first lockdown where everybody was locked down together. We were all in this together, I hate the phrase because the inequalities were present. But we were all going through a similar type of experience. Whereas I worry now that because it's a much more varied type of lockdown for people and varied experience, that perhaps, that the kind of unity that we had around mental health and other issues might start to fragmentation is already fragmenting as we head further through the pandemic.


Vivienne Parry  12:15

Yes. And there's also the fact that we're all feeling so tired and weary and fatigued of this whole thing. And one other thing that makes a big difference, it's now winter, it's miserable weather, it's cold, and we had the most glorious spring that we could have possibly had. So maybe the sunshine helped us. Partly in the past, it's definitely not doing that now.


Daisy Fancourt  12:40

I think that is a factor. We do see senior seasonal variations in things like mental health. And I think a lot there is going to be driven in the next few minutes by the type of news on whether, for example, this vaccine really is showing the promise that it seems to and what the timescale is on this, I think as soon as people feel there's an end in sight, we'll have a bit of a boost in mental health. But I feel like if we're heading through the winter, without it feeling like there's much tangible progress, that's when we might start to see more issues. And I think as well, if we start to see the end of furlough again, or the increases in redundancies, those kinds of problems, really hitting people, or indeed a really high death toll across this winter that will also start to really, really make a mark on people's mental health. Well, it's


Vivienne Parry  13:22

been a fantastic, fantastic piece of research well done to you and your team. Now we know from dazes research and from research discussed in previous podcasts that ethnic minority communities have been particularly vulnerable to the impact of Coronavirus. So Tamjid, I'd like to bring you into the conversation now to talk about the intersection of these two identities. Your research has been focusing on people in higher education. So do you think that the Coronavirus has exacerbated feelings of racism felt by ethnic minority women who are studying in higher education?


Tamjid Mujtaba  13:57

Yes, of course, I'm going to talk about these through existing inequalities before the pandemic so that listeners can appreciate how these issues have become worse. So higher education is undoubtedly facing key challenges during the covid 19 pandemic. But universities must not forget that those of ethnic minority heritage prior to the pandemic are not on an equal footing with students of white heritage background. ethnic minority students already pre pandemic faced issues around financial inequality and issues around minority stress. Prior to the pandemic and ethnic minority students were more likely to drop out of university post admission. And we need to remember that often for those ethnic minority students who managed to get to higher education, they will be one of the first people within the entire history of their family or their particular communities to have gone on to university. So they like privilege that otherwise students will possess the current privilege and in particular white privilege within the country. have this discussion about COVID-19 refers to particular advantages. You don't need to be part of a system of racism to kind of perpetuate issues around inequalities. So white privilege means that you're not judged for the colour of your skin in a negative way, and that you don't have the barriers faced by those of ethnic minority background. And obviously, students of VME background have such issues. My research suggests that COVID-19 will have far reaching consequences for those of ethnic minority background. Because, in addition to financial issues, they're more likely to become ill with COVID-19 or have family members who have been and ethnic minority students are more likely to have additional caring roles brought on by the pandemic. And its women is women that take on always these extra responsibilities. VME women usually are more likely to need to work to support there are education study studies. And often the women in my research have talked about being insecure roles, which have been terminated in the pandemic. So people who've been who've been carers in particular, they're very often in front facing roles in their in the workplace. So therefore, they're more likely to be infected by coronavirus or have higher viral loads. And plus, they may have underlying conditions and then be also anxious about their families. And often there are multi generational households. So people are very worried about bringing back from higher education where there's masses of students and probably lots of asymptomatic cases. And they're taking it back to their family. Yes, they're taking it back to their families and female students have talked about having to take on additional current responsibilities. And these aren't women who are basically just young students have interviewed women who are attending university but have families of their own. So it makes the situation worse. I collected qualitative data from approximately 100 ethnic minority females and ask them about the experience of the pandemic and a large amount jority of these wild Muslim background. And the reason why I'm highlighting this because with what Daisy had said about anxiety levels being higher at pre lockdown, but coming down afterwards, I did not find that with with my sample of interviewees.


Vivienne Parry  17:37

what's clear is that there isn't one way that people experience lockdown, even for people who, you know, you might think whether we're the same, everybody's experiencing it in a different way. But you think that there's a, there's a particular impact? And what are the main things that are that as you were saying, Muslim women are experiencing? Is it physical? Is it mental, is it financial,


Tamjid Mujtaba  18:05

all of those things. So basically, all of my student interviewees talked about financial insecurities. And some of them raised to having added financial pressures around having precarious work contracts, and how that would impact them on being able to continue with their studies. So some of these students talks about having their because they're on fee paid contracts, having had their contracts ended during lockdown. I'm going to give a short narrative about an ethic Marant minority student who had children of her own. And what she found was that she was trying to carve a career in academia. But she was saying because of issues around racism, she could never find a permanent job. So she was constantly on fee paid contracts. She she's got children, and she's got a part of her husband that works. And what happened during the pandemic was one of her contracts. And because University wanted to save money, the second contract that she had, she was told it would carry on until August and whether it continued in September would be dependent on the number of students that ended higher education. That what she's talking about these sorts of issues. He also mentioned that not having worked with means you'd have to end her studies at higher education because she couldn't afford to pay for them. A husband was also in employment, and he was furloughed. And even though he was followed, his company was doing something illegal and expecting him to still work. In fact, he's working more than his usual hours. Because he's hoping that by working hard, he would have a job to go to at the end of it. The season how to take on all the cabin responsibilities around homework, homeschooling his books about having you know, it was Her career had to suffer rather than her husband's all the responsibilities fall on her. Now, this one, this particular narrative, those sorts of issues in a way, you know, in different forms and different stories were expressed by other women, ethnic minority women who were trying to get an education, but had, you know, responsibility, there were all sorts of all sorts of things, similar kind of things.


Vivienne Parry  20:27

And this is a Dungey this isn't I don't know why the Avenger food, any men in this context. But do you think it was definitely that women were experiencing this in a, in a more visceral way than men were?


Tamjid Mujtaba  20:40

I think so because or based on what they were saying, because they obviously talked about their partners as well. And the women in particular who were studying had jobs, and then had to homeschool their children. They're all talking about, you know, having to put their careers on hold, or having lost jobs. And it was it was them that were having to kind of suffer. And when I asked her about her career history, she's actually been trying to work in academia for over a decade. So I said, Why is it over? You know, you've been in short term fee pay contracts for this long. And she said, Well, she can never seem to land a permanent job, despite her qualifications. And she did actually catch upon racism and different sorts of things that happened to her during her career. And how she felt he was, you know, the colour of our skin that didn't enable her to get a job. So all of these inequalities kind of link with each other and exacerbate issues for women. Very interesting.


Vivienne Parry  21:45

somebody that's the situation as it applies to women in academia. What about ethnic minority women more generally,


Tamjid Mujtaba  21:53

a large proportion of the respondents were of British Pakistani background in my research on many of them raise issues to do with increased levels of depression, feelings of financial insecurity. And even those who had graduate qualifications were also reporting such feelings. Women were talking about the added pressures of parenting homeschooling, and much of the added weight that was brought about by lockdown fell upon women. And professional women also reported feeling that their careers was secondary to that of their partners. And it was their career that might have an impact, because of the adjustments they were making within their lives.


Vivienne Parry  22:29

So you find women then have been further disadvantaged. And the way that Daisy is found that women have been further disadvantaged from the disadvantaged position in which they wish they found themselves before. That's, that's really interesting. I usually end these programmes by asking, Well, no, I give you a magic wand. Because what I want you to do is based on your research, what would you do? What would be the one thing that you would do with your magic wand? And by the way, it carries infinite amounts of money, there's no magic worth? It comes from a magic money tree forest. What would you have happen in? Or would you ask the public and listeners to do to help women who are struggling at the moment? Let's go with you, Daisy, first of all,


Daisy Fancourt  23:20

but I think many of the issues we've been talking about that have helped to explain the inequalities we've seen based on gender in this pandemic are structural things that need quite sophisticated changes in the future. But this doesn't mean that there aren't things individually, we can all do. So I think I'd encourage people to reach out to any women they know, friends, family, neighbours, who look like they might be struggling or need more support and offer that support individually. Because I think there's a lot that we can do as a community through kindness to support people at this time.


Vivienne Parry  23:49

And the great thing, of course, you talk about structural elements there, the great thing is that your survey has provided the evidence on which policy change could be made in the future. And actually that evidence basis is critical. Sometimes what about you what would you do with your magic wand


Tamjid Mujtaba  24:08

with my magic wand is two things so for in terms of in higher education, we can mitigate the effect by letting students freeze their studies for a longer duration than is normally given. And this will allow women to navigate themselves through the pandemic take care of loved ones and sort their financial issues without having to worry about having to pull out of education indefinitely. And during wider society in the pandemic itself, I've seen lots of acts of kindness. I've seen people advertising through social networks and social media about handing out food parcels or delivering grocery shopping or being there's a shoulder or a listening ear and that could really help you know lift spirits specifically for those of mental health conditions. Very good.


Vivienne Parry  24:52

And let's just remember that being kind is not just for a pandemic. So you have been listening to Coronavirus: The Whole Story. This episode was presented by myself Vivienne Parry produced by UCL with support from the UCL Health of the Public and UCL Grand Challenges and edited by the splendid Cerys Bradley, our guest today with Dr. Daisy Fancourt and Dr. Tamjid Mujtaba. If you'd like to hear more of these podcasts from UCL Minds, subscribe wherever you download your podcasts, or is it ucl.ac.uk forward slash Coronavirus? This podcast is brought to you by UCL Minds bringing together UCL knowledge, insights and expertise through event, digital content and activities open to everyone. Hope to be with you again soon. Bye for now.