Opinion

COVID-19 Pandemic: A Feminist Issue

When, on the 23rd of March Boris Johnson announced a national lockdown to alleviate the spread of COVID-19 in the UK, he set the stage for existing inequalities to be exacerbated. Behind the country’s closed doors, domestic issues disproportionately affecting women, such as domestic violence and the burden of housework, were intensified. While the economic consequences of the pandemic have been widely reported, a gender differentiation in these impacts is less commonly known. In the wider world, a spotlight on leadership in times of crisis has illuminated a different standard of success dependent on gender; New Zealand’s response is largely attributed to the ‘strong female’ leadership of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.

While perhaps one of the most obvious impacts of the pandemic in the UK has been unemployment and income loss, this has been differentiated by gender. Termed a shecession’ by The Guardian, women were 96% more likely to have become unemployed as a result of the COVID-19, according to an Exeter University study. This can be partly attributed to the traditional forms of work undertaken by women in the UK, such as in the hospitality industry, having been hit hardest by the restrictions. Racial inequality is also present in the economic impacts of the pandemic; the Economic Policy Institute reports that 50% of black women were at risk of unemployment or reduced wages as a result of Coronavirus in the USA, compared with 31% of white women. Nevertheless, both of these statistics were higher than the white man’s 27%.

Increased time spent in the home has arguably disrupted typical understandings of a nuclear family set up. While this has shown the reality of a housewife’s mysterious role as the husband remained at home, the workload has got more intense with the closure of schools, adding the role of teacher to the housewife’s invisible CV. In the case of single mothers, this burden has further added to their often unrecognised work.

Feminist economic theorists often argue that the use of GDP to measure a country’s economy is intrinsically set up to obscure the contribution of women. By omitting domestic work and unpaid caring duties from economic calculations, the prevalent narrative of economic depression as a result of the pandemic fails to recognise increased domestic activity, typically undertaken by women. Discussions of an economic crisis would perhaps be less substantial if the increase in unpaid work during the lockdown were recognised.

Following the declaration of the UK lockdown, domestic violence charities warned of the entrapment of possible victims with their abusive partners. Despite multiple appeals to victims broadcast on daytime TV, Women’s Aid reports that over 90% of victims felt that abuse had worsened as a result of COVID-19 and its restrictions. As if this wasn’t enough, domestic abuse services’ ability to provide refuge were significantly reduced due to lockdown rules. While not just a women’s issue, the physical entrapment of lockdown restrictions has acted to increase vulnerability and limit access to help.

Far beyond the realms of British homes, COVID-19 has illustrated an enormous range in national leadership policies in a time of crisis. New Zealand has been widely hailed as a success story, with 25 deaths from the virus in comparison to the UK’S 45,365. This apparent victory has catapulted Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern to a level of fame and reverence in the wider world, especially through online media sources. Nevertheless, it is apparent that discussions of this case never fail to mention Ardern’s femininity. While this acts to legitimise female leadership in the face of global crisis, it also highlights a perception of female leadership as somehow ‘other’ and noteworthy, whether we agree that it was solely her actions which produced such an outcome or not.

It is clear that Covid-19 has provided an unprecedented lens for examining feminist issues, both in the UK and globally. The stay-at-home order has provided ideal conditions for domestic violence to intensify with a reduced prospect of aid, and increased domestic work has largely been ignored.  Widely reported economic impacts obscure the differentiated effects of these on women, not to mention black women. While I have focused on these issues with regards to the generally focus on the Western world, it is clear that the pandemic’s effects go far beyond the lungs; we must be prepared for the next global crisis to limit the worsening of already established inequalities.

Image source: Effective Child Therapy Network

Lizzie is in her second year studying Geography at Jesus College. When not in Oxford, she lives in North Somerset and enjoys crocheting and watching TV!