Mississippi women face disparities during COVID-19 pandemic

Updated: Mar. 9, 2021 at 7:17 AM CST
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BILOXI, Miss. (WLOX) - As Mississippi nears its one-year anniversary of its first confirmed COVID-19 case, residents are reflecting on the past 365 days, especially those most impacted by the pandemic.

Monday marked International Women’s Day. As we celebrate women for their accomplishments, we are also looking at many of the issues they face, issues that have only grown bigger over the last year during the pandemic.

According to the Mississippi State Department of Health, women have taken the majority of the virus’ impact, making up 56.2% of total cases and 3,114 deaths.

Along with the instant effects from the health crisis, gender advocates say the pandemic put a magnifying glass on other economic and equality issues they have been fighting for.

Nationwide, unemployment and job loss due to COVID-19 has been a focal point.

“I’m a go-getter. I like to be out and about,” Gulfport resident Michelle Schifano said.

Schifano made a living as a substitute teacher but had to leave the job she loves a year ago.

“I was nervous about going back into the school system and not knowing whether I’d bring something back home,” she said.

Schifano was one of millions of women out of a job throughout the pandemic, a number that reached 11 million between February and May of last year.

“This number actually wipes out about 10 years worth of job gain,” Tracy DeVries, Executive Director of the Women’s Foundation of Mississippi, said.

Experts say the pandemic forced women out of the work force to be caregivers and home teachers - a number even more staggering among minorities, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

“Black women have faced the highest rate of unemployment at 8.9%, followed by Hispanic women at 8.5 % and white women at 5.2%,” said DeVries.

And while some women are out of luck finding work, others are on the frontlines.

“Many of the essential workers in Mississippi are in fact women,” DeVries said.

Even as women continue to do their part during the pandemic in hospitals, schools, stores and more, they are paid $.75 for every $1.00 paid to men, according to the National Women’s Law Center.

“Why should women be underpaid when we do the same job as a man? Sometimes we do it more efficiently,” Schifano said.

Job security and the gender wage gap have been hot topics in the past, now only put on a spotlight during the hardships of the pandemic.

“If we were to just close that gap, poverty in Mississippi would be cut in half,” DeVries said.

They are just a portion of the equality issues women face, but ones advocates feel would help the most as COVID-19 continues.

“I think it’s making it harder for them to be able to take care of themselves, to be able to take care of their families and to be able to continue to make a livable wage,” DeVries said.

While it’s mainly women that are facing these issues, experts say everyone has to chip in in order to solve these problems.

“What can each one of us do individually to make sure that women are being taken care of?” DeVries questioned.

The main solution is supporting national, state and local legislation that guarantees equality and benefits for working women, such as access to child care, paid time off and a living wage.

Advocates also want to see the “pink tax” abolished, which would make women’s hygiene products more affordable.

In the meantime, those that managed to get through 2020′s hardships hope their daughters can learn from their example.

“I hope that she would take from me my hard work and my diligence,” Schifano said.

Others are looking toward measures that solve women’s issues.

“Find ways so this doesn’t become a problem after the pandemic,” DeVries said. “When women thrive, Mississippi thrives.”

We’ll hear stories of hope, survival and loss as we look back at the pandemic over the last year. Tune in at 6:30 p.m., March 11, on CBS to watch WLOX’s special report, Mississippi Tested: The COVID Fight Now and in the Future.

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