The gender dimension of the coronavirus crisis is obvious when seen through a lens of gender inequality. Which leaves it invisible to many.
It is nearly two months since the coronavirus pandemic hit Europe at its foundations and shook the globe. The pandemic affects all our lives. We are staying at home—if possible—working from home, home-schooling our children and keeping in touch with our loved ones by phone or video-messaging. And of course, we are scared. These are devastating times.
We have read thousands of articles and news updates—emergency plans have been adopted, financial aid allocated and researchers consulted. This is vital and important: saving lives must remain the priority, without any doubt. But are there only male experts and virologists? Why are right-wing populist leaders, such as Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro and Viktor Orbán, not only denying the science and the gravity of the pandemic but also clinging to toxic forms of masculinity—and going unchallenged in doing so?
The pandemic shows us again who owns power in the world. Men believe they have the solutions, while women make up the majority of those working in essential professions. Does anyone really care about how this crisis is affecting women?
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Female leaders such as Jacinda Ardern have acted early and decisively but there are not enough of them. In January 2020, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, only 10 of 152 elected heads of state were women, while 73 per cent of those working in the news media were men. As the executive director of UN Women, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, says, ‘We have created a world where women are squeezed into just 25 per cent—one quarter—of space, both in physical decision-making rooms, and in the stories that we tell about our lives.’ The example female leaders are setting in successfully controlling the pandemic should show us that gender equality is critical to global public health and international security.
At the same time, 70 per cent of the global health and social workforce—doctors, nurses and care workers—are women. Cashiers and cleaners are largely female as well. They are not only often working in precarious conditions with only minimum wages, but they also do not have the necessary platforms to raise their voices and articulate their concerns, even though they are at a higher risk of being exposed to the virus.
My heart aches every day, listening to women who work at the front line. I took up—for the time being—my old job as a psychological care provider to give assistance to those who need to talk about their experiences—care workers who have dealt with coronavirus patients. They are my heroes, 99 per cent of them women. And besides what they have to deal with at work, they look after their families, do the shopping and home-school their children. They have a triple burden.
As we have witnessed many times before, in times of crisis women are among the most vulnerable yet remain invisible. Gender-based violence was worryingly high before the outbreak but it has increased significantly since women have been trapped at home with their abusers due to exhaustive lockdowns. Access to sexual and reproductive health and rights is limited or under attack in many parts of the world and has become even more restricted. Extreme-right governments are even misusing their emergency powers to further attempt to ban access to contraception and abortion.
In normal times, women do on average three times as much unpaid care and domestic work as men. As a result of the current crisis and measures, unpaid work for women has increased, as has the pressure on them and the insecurity they experience. This is causing additional mental and physical strain, in particular for single parents, 85 per cent of whom are women. Women were economically disadvantaged before the crisis, they are risking poverty, unemployment, social exclusion and homelessness now and, as history shows, they will be heavily affected into the long term.
In a nutshell, Covid-19 exposes and reinforces existing gender inequalities. The consequences are devastating, especially for the most deprived: older women, women from ethnic minorities and women of colour, women with disabilities or mental illnesses, migrant and refugee women, those at risk of poverty. It is not just a problem of patriarchy but also of white privilege.
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While more men are dying of the virus, women are nevertheless among the most affected if we consider the broad socio-economic impacts of the pandemic. At the same time, women are also absolutely vital to the recovery. Rebuilding a sustainable, just and equal society will only be possible if the role of women in this fight and in general, beyond this crisis, is properly recognised and the disproportionate burden they are carrying is redistributed accordingly.
But, as long as capital is valued more than people, we cannot lay the foundation for a sustainable and inclusive recovery. There is a real opportunity for radical economic change: returning to the status quo must not be the response to this crisis or the vision for our long-term future in Europe. It is a unique chance and our common duty as a global community to seize the moment and to use this far-reaching event, finally to shift towards a more equal and just society which leaves no one behind. But this opportunity is being sidelined—just as women are.
We are raising the bar with this pandemic. What European and global women’s movements have been saying and shouting about on the streets for decades is not only demonstrably true and essential but now even more important.
We need increased investment in gender-sensitive public services, as well as legislation and prevention mechanisms against gender-based violence. We need to guarantee sexual and reproductive rights as a fundamental human and public health right. We must also ensure better social safety nets for families, increased wages in the care sector, recognition of unpaid care work, more women in decision-making, gender-sensitive education, sex-disaggregated data collection, as well as gender-mainstreaming of budgeting and overall policy-making—to name just a few things.
It is high time for world leaders to care for women as much as women care for our societies. It is time to make women visible, make their voices count and speak up for those who cannot. The UN secretary-general, António Guterres, is setting a good example, using his position to urge that women and girls be placed at the centre of efforts to recover from Covid-19. Unfortunately, he is among only a small number who realise that gender equality and women’s rights are essential to getting through this pandemic.
Already, Covid-19 is establishing a new normal. It is testing the values we want to live up to and the kind of societies we want to build. And solutions to the pandemic must be framed in the context of global justice, human rights and equality. But who would listen to me?—I am a woman. Who cares?