5 reasons why the coronavirus crisis needs a feminist response

Addise, 26, Beekeeping Cooperative Secretary, Bahirdar, Ethiopia

Addise, 26, Beekeeping Cooperative Secretary, Bahirdar, Ethiopia. As a teenager she dreamt of becoming a doctor, but at 15, she was forced into an early marriage and had to leave school. A few years ago she took part in an Oxfam's beekeeping project in her village, providing women with equipment and training to produce and sell honey. Photo: Kieran Doherty/Oxfam

The outbreak of the Covid-19 coronavirus is currently occupying the entire world - and requires prudent action. But good crisis management requires more than just scientific research. It also requires political and social responses. And unlike medicines and vaccines, these responses do not have to be discovered first.

Feminism has already developed the ideas that can now close the existing gap of inequality which becomes even more obvious in times of crisis.

Why does the coronavirus crisis need a feminist answer? Here are 5 reasons.

1. Each and every person is valuable

Each and everyone is valuable and has the same rights - regardless of gender, ethnic origin, sexual identity, religion or belief, disability, age, social status or position - this is the foundation of feminism. The coronavirus crisis makes clear: this stance is perhaps more important today than ever. Our personal actions must align with it.

It takes understanding for each other to live together in an increasingly interdependent world - despite, and precisely because of, the current spatial distance. The measures that governments take today will shape our future in the medium and long term. Anyone who sees existing inequalities and discrimination - whether based on gender, age or state of health - as marginal issues that are not pressing in times of crisis, is missing the point.

Ruth, mother of 7 in the Philippines

In many parts of the Philippines, taking care of children and the elderly, as well as doing household chores, is seen as women's tasks. Ruth is a mother of 7. She is the first to wake up, feeding the kids and getting them ready for school, and the last to sleep after she cleans the house and washes everyone’s clothes. Photo: Jed Regala/Oxfam

2. The crisis hits some people harder than others

The pandemic has reached every corner of our lives, but it hits each of us differently. People who do not have a (safe) home, who suffer from poverty and exploitative working conditions as well as those who are chronically ill are particularly affected. Above all, older women and single mothers, who are overrepresented among the poor and those at risk of poverty anyway, are most severely affected by the current state of emergency.

Women worldwide earn 23% less than men, who in turn have 50% more assets. This inequality is being exacerbated by the crisis. Working from home, stocking up on supplies or washing your hands regularly? This is simply not possible for many people. Women workers, who are often already paid less than men for the same work, often earn too little, live from hand to mouth and in many cases have no access to clean water are particularly affected. 

Meanwhile essential professions are mostly performed by women worldwide. More than 70% of healthcare workers are women. It is also women who carry out more than 70% of unpaid work, performing three times as much unpaid work as men. This blatant injustice is intensified by school closures and increased illness, which leads to a growing burden for carers. This must change now. Instead of continuing to systematically devalue unpaid and underpaid care work, it must be given the status it deserves and recognised globally for its role in social cohesion.

Hong Rany (26) checks a net for fish near her home on Chrem Island out in the middle of the Mekong River.

Rany Hong, 26, checks a net for fish near her home on Chreum Island out in the middle of the Mekong River, Cambodia. She was elected leader of the community fishery committee which protects and manages natural resources, particularly fisheries resources on which families rely for their livelihood. Photo: Savann Oeurm/Oxfam

3. Fair pay is not a marginal issue

Dismissals and reduced working hours have become a particular threat to existence during the pandemic. The textile industry in Bangladesh, for example, shows that women in particular face an existential threat posed by coronavirus. The cancellation of orders by textile companies puts jobs and thus the livelihoods of garment workers, and women in particular, at risk.

Women on wine farms in South Africa are also disproportionately affected. If wine imports fall as a result of the virus, seasonal workers will lose their jobs first, while their (mostly male) colleagues with permanent contracts will keep their jobs as Colette Solomon, Director of Women on Farms Project points out. This double standard has no place in a just world.

Recognition and appreciation for essential professions and carers are important. But what is needed is adequate pay and safe working conditions for precisely this crucial work - during the crisis, but above all in the long term - anything else would be cynical.

Rizini Furaha carries a water jerrican at dusk in Malinde, DRC.

Rizini Furaha carries a water jerrycan at dusk in Malinde village, South Kivu region, DRC. Rizini fetches water to the river three times a day with her four-year-old son. She then carries the jerrycan filled with 20 litres of water on her back, held with a strap around her head. Photo: Alexis Huguet/Oxfam

4. Health and health care are not tradable commodities

Especially for people who live in fragile states or in confined spaces, the risk of infection and serious or fatal illness is particularly high due to inadequate medical care. This is particularly evident in the Moria refugee camp, where a single toilet is sometimes used by over 150 people and where there is often no soap.

The lack of (clean) water is also a bitter reality in other parts of the world. The equation is as simple as it is cruel: no clean water, no health. If there is no running water and women and girls have to walk several kilometres to the nearest well, they are exposed to dangers such as infection while collecting water.

Equal access to medicines, preventive protective measures or medical treatment must be ensured for all, and not only restricted to a select circle of wealthy people.

Students in Malawi learn what sexual gender-based violence is and how they can report and protect themselves from it.

Students in Malawi learn what sexual gender-based violence is through at school and how they can report and protect themselves from it. Dropping out of school is common among girls, and is generally due to reasons like teenage pregnancy, child labour and self-will. Photo: Ko Chung Ming/Oxfam

5. We can't afford to lose sight of human rights, gender justice and environmental protection

Even in times of coronavirus, politicians must not lose sight of their other responsibilities for human rights and environmental protection. Complying with them is part of our collective responsibility - in good times and bad. This also applies to access to basic social services, such as education, which must be guaranteed. Even now, a few weeks into the pandemic, 1.5 billion pupils and students are affected by school closures worldwide, hundreds of millions of them will never return to the classroom.

The answers to coronavirus must not lose track of the Sustainable Development Goals. During the pandemic, the climate crisis has taken the back seat. Individual voices in politics and industry are already calling for existing environmental protection measures to be reversed for their own benefit. But that would be a step in the wrong direction. The crisis requires sustainable answers. These also include strengthening global gender-equitable social and healthcare systems, that address specific risks for women and thus contribute to lasting change.

Social and gender inequality is a core issue and has to be tackled now. Governments must not forget this in their political decisions to contain the virus. And if they do, we must stand together and remind them, wherever and whenever necessary.