Coronavirus is Not Gender Neutral

Helene Paul Mar 25, 2020

BERLIN, Germany — Angela Merkel sat at a desk facing the nation last week. That’s something that never usually happens here in Germany: The chancellor alone, addressing the country on television. Her speech resembles past acts of reassurance. She reminds people to stay calm but to stay home. She takes a moment to thank everyone who is responding to the pandemic and especially highlights the work of doctors.

What Merkel failed to mention, however, is that this crisis shines a light on another pandemic, one that has been permeating society and public life for decades and has only intensified due to the coronavirus.

In this crisis, women are keeping public life going.

In Germany, and around the world, women make up a significantly higher share of workers in the sectors of food retail, welfare, medical care, and childcare — all sectors that are essential for social continuity. 

Despite all the challenges arising from the pandemic, some of them even life or death situations, there is also an opportunity. A chance to reevaluate our system. A chance to recognize societal conditions that usually go unquestioned in times of the status quo. 

We need a feminist solution to the COVID-19 pandemic.

First off, there is the issue of paid care work, which is mainly carried out by women who are grossly underpaid. Instead of big corporations, these women should be the ones receiving tangible financial support. Having realized their indispensable role and sacrifice, adequate compensation should be a definite next step. Their salaries should represent the contribution they make every day and the risk they now take while fighting the virus.  

We must also recognize unpaid care work, which is, again, mostly carried out by women. This includes caring for sick and elderly relatives, as well as family members in need. 

Current restrictions on public life outside the home make that situation that much more difficult. As housework has already lacked recognition as work in the past, it becomes more urgent for it to be acknowledged in the present — especially given that such unpaid work enables the functioning of our system. 

Recognition could be a first step toward better working conditions, a redistribution of unpaid work and, even better, a reorganization of our economic system to include compensation for those who perform often thankless domestic tasks.

Quarantine and the reorganization of private life to protect oneself against the virus can have negative consequences for women who are stuck at home with an abuser. Domestic violence is known to increase in times of crisis, all the while access to critical protective infrastructure for women is restricted. 

Consequently, alternative solutions should be applied and highlighted in public discourse, and those services still available should be supported financially. In a time of ‘social distancing,’ we should not forget that we can still care for one another. There is still room for fighting this pandemic and its repercussions simultaneously.

This crisis is not gender-neutral and it exacerbates inequalities. We need a feminist solution. We need to rethink the way we compensate and value women’s’ labor while not forgetting that it matters who makes decisions, who has access to power, money, and resources. We need to be kind to one another and remember what quarantine and the loss of work or income, means for us as well as others.

None of this is to say that there are not underpaid, system-relevant jobs carried out by men. Race, class and ability divides are also being brought to the for by this pandemic. 

Now is the time to stay home but also to stay mindful. If fortunate enough, this could be a time of great possibilities for rethinking the way we shape and perceive our society, our politics and how we interact with one another. 

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