5 reasons why the Coronavirus crisis needs a feminist response now

Mara Brückner Gender

The Coronavirus is currently occupying the entire world and requires prudent action. But good crisis management requires more than just scientific research. It also requires a political and social response. Feminism has already developed the ideas that can now close the existing gaps of inequality, which have become even more obvious in times of crisis.

So here are 5 reasons why we need a feminist response now:

Each and every person is valuable.

Our actions must align with the stance that each and every person is valuable. It takes an 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 intersectional discrimination – whether based on race, gender, class, ethnic origin, age, sexual orientation, or state of health and other forms of discrimination – as marginal issues that are not pressing in times of crisis, is missing the point

The crisis hits some people harder than others. We need answers that address inequalities.

All of us are worried about ourselves or their loved ones right now. We all feel uneasy and sometimes even afraid. After all, the pandemic has reached every corner of our lives. But it is also true that the crisis hits each of us differently. People who do not have a (safe) home, who live in poverty and have exploitative working conditions, and/or affected by the inequalities and violence inherent in sexism, and by racism, as well as those who are chronically ill, are particularly affected. Above all, older women and single mothers, who according to the United Nations are over-represented among the poor and those at risk of poverty anyway, are most severely affected by the current state of emergency.

A look at previous pandemics gives us an idea of what long-term the consequences of the crisis could mean for women in particular. Although all income fell as a result of Ebola in West Africa, “men’s incomes have returned to pre-epidemic levels more quickly than women’s,” health researcher Julia Smith told the New York Times. And even under normal circumstances women worldwide earn 23% less than men, who in turn have 50% more assets. This inequality is being exacerbated by the crisis.

Meanwhile more than 70% of healthcare workers worldwide are women. It is also women who carry out more than 70% of unpaid work worldwide, 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 is a burden for which political answers are often lacking.

This must change now. Unpaid as well as underpaid care and nursing work must be spread over different (and more male) shoulders. Instead of continuing to systematically devalue this work, it must be given the status it deserves and recognised globally for its role in social cohesion. If the answers are really to meet the challenges, women and local women’s rights organisations should not only sit at the table when decisions are made, but should also actively participate in building this table.

The importance of reflecting on existing inequalities in political measures, and of making decision-making processes inclusive and equal, is also evident in South Africa. For example, our partner organisation Women on Farms Project (WFP) criticises that the current lockdown measures for South Africa fail to recognise the fact that it “is the most unequal country in the world, with 50% of the population living in poverty.”

Working from home, stocking up on supplies or washing your hands regularly? This is simply not possible for women farm workers, who are already paid less than men for the same work, often earn too little, live from hand to mouth and often have no access to (clean) water.

Decent 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. 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. “While farm workers in South Africa have been categorised as ‘essential workers’ during the lockdown, their low wages and precarious livelihoods do not reflect their critical role they play in the economy,” says Colette Solomon, Director of Women on Farms Project.

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.

Health and health care are not tradeable 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 or the water supply is interrupted. 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.  

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

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 on human rights and environmental protection. For example, Germany still needs to introduce a supply chain law to ensure that people and nature do not suffer from the unscrupulous business practices of some German companies. Companies must be aware of the special risks for women and consult, among others, local women’s rights organisations.

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 social and healthcare systems, gender-equitable social security systems that address specific risks for women and particularly for Black women and women of colour who experience both racism and sexism.

Intersectional discriminations based on gender, race, class and all other forms of social oppression bolstering inequality are core issues and have 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.

This post is an translated and adapted version of the original, published on the Oxfam Germany website.


Mara Brückner


Christin Becker