Research has shown that women’s employment has been worse hit than men in the US, as well as in developing countries like India. Apart from economic hardships, research in developed countries like the US also demonstrated that women appear to have suffered greater mental health problems relative to men due to the COVID-19 pandemic and associated lockdowns.
However research from 2021, conducted by me and my colleagues, Professor Amrita Dhillon from the Department of Political Economy and Professor Farzana Afridi from the Indian Statistical Institute, was the first study on this issue for a developing country.
We conducted a survey of 1,500 low-income households in urban Delhi during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. From the research we found there were very high levels of psychological stress – something that hadn’t received much attention in either academic or policy circles at the time.
Understanding how the pandemic impacted mental health in India
Financial insecurity was one of the biggest drivers of psychological stress and women suffered worse mental health impacts compared to men. In particular, they were more likely to feel anxious, depressed and suffer from sleep disorders.
To understand if these gender differences persisted as the pandemic continued in India, we collected two further rounds of follow-up data from our study participants – one during August-October 2020, as the first wave began to subside and lockdown lifted, and one in April-June 2021, during the more devastating second wave of the pandemic that led the government to impose more concentrated and localised lockdowns.
In particular, by interviewing husbands and wives in the same household, we could see how the experiences of the pandemic differed within couples across various phases of the COVID-19 crisis in India.
A mental health crisis during the second wave
The second wave was particularly devastating in India, and in particular, in Delhi. There was consistently record high daily figures of COVID-19 infections and deaths for weeks – due to the highly infectious Delta variant as well as the collapse of the healthcare system.
This meant health worries were heightened across the board as the pandemic advanced. These health worries became equally important in triggering psychological distress during the second wave, especially for men. However, more women than men reported health worries in the first wave, which continued into the second wave.