With America’s disproportionate numbers of low-income and minority populations sick and dying of COVID-19, analysts and commentators have been quick to correct any initial misimpression that the global pandemic might be a “great leveler,” rampaging indiscriminately across class lines.
But the notion should not be dismissed so readily. In fact, the pandemic has proven to be a great leveler—of rich and poor nations alike, for their stingy, dismissive treatment of women, whose labor actually makes their countries run.
I speak of those who grow and pick our food and bring it to market, and the vendors and grocery clerks and cooks and servers who bring it to table; I speak of the teachers we entrust with our children, and the health practitioners, emergency workers, and caregivers we entrust with our and our loved ones’ lives; I speak of the pharmacists and janitors who help keep us healthy, and the transport workers who enable all these local heroes to get to work; and I speak of the small business entrepreneurs worldwide, whose shops are now shuttered but who, in normal times, keep us clean, fed, groomed and equipped.
Across the globe, most of these heroes are women. And across the globe, nearly all of them have been sent to fight this pandemic without the training, protection, back-up or recognition they need and deserve.
Whether in Manila, Lusaka, Caracas, or Queens, the belated cascade of government closures and economic shutdowns aimed at containing the raging virus has finally focused a searing global spotlight on billions of low-income women serving unprotected on the frontlines: With every step and thoughtful gesture, our providers and caregivers support the rest of us like some collective empathic Atlas, risking their lives, their livelihoods, their shelter, their personal safety.
They do it because they care, and because they have no choice.
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This failure to honor and protect those doing this life-saving work runs generations deep nearly everywhere on the planet, often evoking a racist, colonial and economically rapacious past.
Nearly every government has been caught unprepared, revealing the flawed, failed or non-existent systems in place to meet their populations’ most basic needs. Most nations’ health care and health insurance infrastructure and their wage, childcare and family and sick leave structures are weak to non-existent, their food systems and physical infrastructure—including housing, energy, public transport, riddled with life-threatening gaps and inequities. All these public goods and services fall desperately short, leaving those without means to scramble, simply to save their and their families’ lives.
At WomenStrong International, we work with 19 women-led member organizations in 16 countries across the globe, all of whom serve low-income women and girls, mostly in impoverished urban settings. As part of our WomenStrong Learning Lab, members focus on improving women’s and adolescent health, increasing access to girls’ education and empowerment, and preventing violence against women and girls.
But with schools, clinics and whole communities shuttered, our members’ programs, too, have largely been forced to pause.
What does this mean, when working with populations even more fragile than our own?
In our members’ communities in Mali and Mexico—as in countless communities worldwide—it means that maternal, pre-natal and primary health care now take a backseat to treating and isolating COVID-19 patients, leaving the most vulnerable pregnant women and girls and families with delayed care or no care at all.
It means that without school, the girls with whom our members work in Blantyre, Harare, Kampala, Nairobi, Lusaka, Madagascar and elsewhere have dramatically reduced access to sexual and reproductive health information, family planning, menstrual hygiene products and even running water in their communities and homes where, now confined day after day, they are at heightened risk of sexual violence and child abuse.
All our women and girls are now at increased risk for domestic violence, as income-generating activities stop, economic pressures rise and overcrowded conditions exacerbate the tensions in communities. As the economic impacts of the pandemic cascade across cities, nations, regions and whole continents, food insecurity and livelihood losses are projected to grow, further augmenting these stressors.
As a global community, we need to recognize the lifesaving contributions made by hundreds of millions of women on the front lines who are risking their own lives to do so. And we must stop and rethink whom we value in our societies, and how we let those people know.
We then must ask women what they need to feel valued, secure and protected. Even as the world wisely remains hunkered down, we must develop targeted plans and build consensus now for these plans and for budgets designed to act on these women warriors’ guidance, with substantial social investment and restructuring to be implemented in the post-COVID era.
Then, someday, the difference between nations might be not between those deemed “rich” and “poor,” but between those knowingly affirming their cruel disregard for the caregivers, and many more countries, including the United States, that might now move forward, grateful and determined to take proper care of those who care for us.
The coronavirus pandemic and the response by federal, state and local authorities is fast-moving. During this time, Ms. is keeping a focus on aspects of the crisis—especially as it impacts women and their families—often not reported by mainstream media. If you found this article helpful, please consider supporting our independent reporting and truth-telling for as little as $5 per month.