Covid and Women’s Well-being: new feminist analyses
By Katie Palmer du Preez
The Covid-19 pandemic has dramatically changed the face of society, how we work, socialise and interact with each other, and has had far reaching consequences beyond health and the risk of covid infection. These changes disproportionately impact on women. New feminist analyses focus on “how COVID-19 come[s] to matter in gendered ways and for different women (recognizing cis, trans and fluid gender identifications, intersectionality and more-than-human worlds).”1
Analyses critique how containing the virus has involved the radical revision of “home” as an intense site of… practically everything! Many government responses assume home as a safe space to retreat to. We know that home is a privileged location for some, and for others a place of dispossession, disconnection, violence and loss. Our homes are being invested with enhanced capacity where governments and employers assume free and amenable space (and time) for work, leisure, sustenance, care, childcare and education.2
Globally, women experience greater employment losses connected with the pandemic, are more likely to work in essential jobs, and experience a greater reduction in income.3 Women are also doing more reproductive labour than men and are more likely to drop out of the labour force because of it.4 New Australian analyses show lockdowns create extra unpaid work, at the same time as some people work from home.5 Men pitch in more, but only to about the same amount as women were doing before the pandemic. Employers expect their workers to be as productive as before the pandemic, ignoring care burdens. Childcare and school closures disproportionally affect women’s paid and unpaid work. Women’s economic security will be at growing risk unless affordable care services are available equitably to all women who need them.
As Dame Marilyn Waring consistently points out, the way we currently measure our economies and engage in strategies for “economic recovery” ignores the work of everyday life that benefits the whole society, but is carried out for “free” by parents and other family members, usually women.6 COVID shows us how capitalism is at odds with global health in general, and women’s wellbeing:
Capital accumulation depends on women’s oppression in multiple, fundamental ways having to do with their paid and unpaid work. Women’s work, and by extension their health, is the foundation upon which both production and social reproduction rely. Recognising the pandemic as endogenous to capitalism heightens the contradiction between a world shaped by the profit motive and the domestic and global requirements of public health.7
Feminist advocate and writer Chloe Cooney recently noted: “Pandemics expose and exacerbate the existing dynamics of a society — good and bad. It’s always been a farce to think about caretaking and family responsibilities as ‘personal life decisions’ that get handled outside of work hours… This current situation is almost prophetically designed to showcase the farce of our societal approach to separating work and family lives. “Making it work” is only true for those with the most privilege among us.”8
Economists agree we are facing a ‘care crisis’,3 which could lead to profound and long-lasting shifts in women’s work and life outside the home. Rates of anxiety and stress among women are reactions to their position as frontline workers and care providers, and to the impossible choices they can face regarding childcare, education, and their economic and personal security. New findings linking ‘Long COVID’ symptoms to women’s reproductive capacity suggest that COVID infection may have an ongoing impact on women’s health, quality of life and ability to carry out the paid and unpaid work that is expected of them. For example, women seem to experience less severe symptoms short-term but suffer worse long-term COVID complications, including depression, reduced physical activity, and deteriorating lifestyle habits.9, 10
Gender-aware health promotion and harm reduction practice are urgently needed. In 2020, the New Zealand government received advice from the Ministry for Women that support and recovery measures to date had not been designed with gender equity in mind, and ran the risk of exacerbating COVID impacts, particularly for Māori and Pāsifika women.11 It advised government to develop a cross-government gender-COVID response, including meaningful specific actions to mitigate the disproportionate effects on women in New Zealand…. Where are these initiatives?
According to the UN,12 specific policies to support and protect unpaid carers during the COVID-19 pandemic should focus on rewarding (paying for) and redistributing care work, while ensuring the safety of carers, for example:
- Exempting caregivers from stringent freedom of movement restrictions and providing them with information, equipment and additional income support in return for their contributions.
- Government subsidies to replace pay for workers who are unable to work (or who work reduced hours) while caring for children while school and daycare is closed due to the pandemic. For example, Canada, Germany and Italy have introduced paid reductions in working time and work-sharing arrangements.
- Removing the requirement (for carers) to actively seek work in order to be eligible for unemployment benefits.
- Extending unemployment benefits or other cash transfer schemes to those resigning from employment to provide child care or other unpaid care work due to the pandemic.
- Expanding access to paid family leave and paid sick leave.
UN Women has also facilitated a Women Leaders’ Virtual Roundtable on COVID-19 to promote representation of women and girls as central to pandemic response efforts, and to impress upon policy makers the need to explicitly support an equal sharing of the burden of care between women and men. In Latin America, at least eight countries have launched social media campaigns calling for an equal sharing of domestic responsibilities during lockdown – why have we seen nothing similar in New Zealand? The need to value the care economy to tackle gender equality is already acknowledged in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 5, Target 5.4: “recognize and value unpaid care and domestic work through the provision of public services, infrastructure and social protection policies, and the promotion of shared responsibility within the household and the family as nationally appropriate.”
Critical attention to gender equity, new relations in public/private life and investment in the care economy is needed if we are to ‘build back better’ for women. Will we have the energy left to demand this?
- Fullagar, S. and A. Pavlidis, Thinking through the disruptive effects and affects of the coronavirus with feminist new materialism. Leisure sciences, 2021. 43(1-2): p. 152-159.
- Jenkins, F. Did our employers just requisition our homes? 2020 [cited 2021 5 November]; Available from: https://www.canberratimes.com.au/story/6701054/did-our-employers-just-requisition-our-homes/.
- Smith, J., et al., More than a public health crisis: a feminist political economic analysis of COVID-19. Global public health, 2021: p. 1-17.
- Power, K., The COVID-19 pandemic has increased the care burden of women and families. Sustainability: Science, Practice and Policy, 2020. 16(1): p. 67-73.
- Craig, L. and B. Churchill, Working and caring at home: Gender differences in the effects of COVID-19 on paid and unpaid labor in Australia. Feminist economics, 2021. 27(1-2): p. 310-326.
- Waring, M. The economics during lockdown. 2020 [cited 2021 8 November]; Available from: https://women.govt.nz/news/covid-19-and-women/covid-19-think-pieces/economics-during-lockdown.
- Cohen, J. and Y. van der Meulen Rodgers, The feminist political economy of Covid-19: Capitalism, women, and work. Global Public Health, 2021: p. 1-15.
- Cooney, C. The Parents Are Not All Right. 2020 [cited 2021 8 November]; Available from: https://gen.medium.com/parents-are-not-ok-66ab2a3e42d9.
- Bucciarelli, V., et al., Depression pandemic and cardiovascular risk in the COVID-19 era and long COVID syndrome: gender makes a difference. Trends in Cardiovascular Medicine, 2021.
- Torjesen, I., Covid-19: Middle aged women face greater risk of debilitating long term symptoms. BMJ, 2021. 372:n829.
- Ministry for Women. COVID-19 Advice to Minister. 2020 [cited 2021 8 November]; Available from: https://women.govt.nz/news/covid-19-and-women/covid-19-advice-minister.
- UN Women. COVID-19 and the care economy: Immediate action and structural transformation for a gender-responsive recovery. 2020 [cited 2021 8 November]; Available from: https://www.unwomen.org/en/digital-library/publications/2020/06/policy-brief-covid-19-and-the-care-economy.