Impact of COVID-19 on the health of Australia's females

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COVID-19 is a disease caused by the virus severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2). It is a major health threat resulting in both direct and indirect effects on the health of Australia’s females.

For more information on AIHW COVID-19 reporting see COVID-19 and Changes in the health of Australians during the COVID-19 period.

How has COVID-19 affected Australia’s females directly?

From 15 December 2021 to 18 December 2022, the rate of COVID-19 cases in females was around 39,400 per 100,000 population, a higher case rate than males by about 4,500. The highest rate was seen in those aged 18–29 (CDI 2023).

About 6,000 females died from COVID-19 in Australia by March 2023. The highest rates of deaths were seen in females aged 90 and over (ABS 2022a). The most common associated causes of death were pneumonia and respiratory failure.

COVID-19 is the 12th leading cause of disease burden in females, responsible for 2.5% of total ill health and premature death in Australia in 2022. In comparison, COVID-19 ranked 7th among specific diseases in males and was responsible for 3.0% of total disease burden. In females, the burden from COVID-19 was predominantly due to premature death, accounting for 67% of total COVID-19 disease burden. The total disease burden due to COVID-19 was the highest in females aged 80–84 and 85–89 (both 11.2%) (AIHW 2022k).

For more information on COVID-19 disease burden and impacts see the Australian Burden of Disease Study 2022.

What are some of the indirect impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on females?

Family planning and contraceptive use in 2020

In September 2020, the Australian Longitudinal Study on Women’s Health asked females aged 25–31 and 42–47 on their plans for pregnancy, and about contraceptive use during the pandemic (Loxton, et al. 2020):

  • 6% of females aged 25–31, and 2% of females aged 42–47 had difficulty accessing contraceptives, most commonly the contraceptive pill, as a result of the pandemic.
  • 10% of females aged 25–31 indicated that their plans for pregnancy had changed since the start of the pandemic, with 6% delaying pregnancy and 4% planning to become pregnant sooner than they had planned prior to the pandemic.
  • Less than 1% of females aged 42–47 reported changing their pregnancy plans since the pandemic started.

COVID-19 and mental health from 2020 to 2021

For some Australians, the COVID-19 pandemic and associated implications have had a negative effect on mental health. Negative effects can result from concerns about the virus itself, and the impact of the measures used to contain the spread of the virus (NMHC 2020).

A survey of mental health and wellbeing during COVID-19 in Australia found that during the first 2 years of COVID-19, females were more adversely impacted than males; showing significantly and substantially higher levels of psychological distress than prior to the pandemic (Biddle, et al. 2022).

While different data collecting methods impact comparability of mental health measures from pre pandemic and pandemic levels, and changing service delivery methods have impacted access, data from MBS, PBS and crisis support and information organisations indicate an increase in mental health service use since the start of the pandemic (AIHW 2022v).

For detailed information see Mental health impact of COVID-19.

Delayed and foregone health care during 2020 and 2021

Due to lockdowns, isolation requirements and restrictions on some health services during 2020 and 2021, there was concern people may not have received the care they required if they were unable to access a General Practitioner (GP) which provide primary care in Australia.

Based on the ABS 2021 Patient Experience Survey, females aged 15 and over were more likely than males to delay using the following health services when needed due to COVID-19 (ABS 2021g):

  • dental professionals (14.4% of females compared to 9.4% of males)
  • GPs (12.5% compared to 6.8%)
  • after-hours GPs (8.5% compared to 5.4%)
  • medical specialists (8.4% compared to 6.0%).

There was a large increase in female visits to GPs in 2021, well above the expected rate based on projections from data for the period to 2019. This increase was likely driven by the large role GPs played in the vaccine rollout (AIHW 2022c).

Females also had had a quicker return than males in 2021 toward expected rates for some procedures such as MBS subsidised colonoscopies, and operations in hospitals (AIHW 2022c).

Access to, and use of cancer screening programs was also impacted. In particular, breast screening services were suspended from late March 2020 to early May 2020 due to COVID-19 restrictions. The suspension of the services resulted in a significant decline in mammograms, decreasing from more than 70,000 mammograms in March 2020 to just over 1,100 in April 2020 (AIHW 2021d).

While suspension of the services was lifted in May 2020, breast screening resumed in a staged approach. Additionally, the rate at which breast screening services could resume was impacted by various jurisdictional social distancing guidelines (AIHW 2021d).

For more information, see Changes in the health of Australians during the COVID-19 period, Cancer Screening and Cancer screening and COVID-19 in Australia

Family and domestic violence during COVID-19 in 2021

A survey during the COVID-19 pandemic found many females who had previously experienced partner violence reported that violence had increased during the pandemic (Boxall and Morgan 2021):

  • 42% said physical violence had increased in frequency or severity, and 43% said sexual violence had increased in frequency or severity.
  • One in 4 females (26%) who had experienced physical or sexual violence also said they had been unable to seek assistance on at least one occasion due to safety concerns.

Around 74% of hospitalisations for family and domestic violence (FDV) are females. Between 2017–18 and 2020–21, the rate of FDV hospitalisations per 100,000 persons increased by 9.6% in females, while staying stable for males (AIHW 2022s).