Epidemics are often dubbed mirrors of society and COVID-19 has highlighted inequalities and structural vulnerabilities related to wealth, race, age, education, geographical location and gender worldwide. It also has multiple significant socio-economic effects on women and girls, particularly as measures to combat the pandemic largely fail to consider their needs. Lockdowns caused a sharp spike in sexual gender-based violence, increased women’s unpaid/underpaid workload and labour, often on the pandemic’s frontlines, and exacerbated their socio-economic insecurities and dependencies. At the same time, as women are largely excluded from (political) decision-making processes that concern them, they are also not included in developing gender-just responses to the pandemic. Despite initial vaccination rollout optimism, leaders have yet to address structural distribution issues and global vaccine inequality to truly halt the pandemic. Planning and rollout of vaccine distribution must tackle gender-related barriers in particular to reach everyone, especially the most marginalized.
Societies and economies now face the challenges of the “new normal”. The pandemic led to job losses, economic crises and a worldwide recession. Initial global economic recovery is not being experienced equally. Poorer countries face a deeper, longer crisis with greater global poverty, reversing recent trends of shrinking inequality. There is a huge risk economic recovery strategies will fail to address inequalities revealed by the pandemic. The world will not be the same post-pandemic, yet proposed solutions seem unchanged: likely to be market-focused, influenced by neoliberal ideology and still largely gender-blind.
The intersecting effects of power hierarchies (and identities) affect women’s paid, unpaid, and underpaid labour—particularly in care provision—during COVID-19: at home, in health and social care, and in informal, precarious work including domestic work. When schools and childcare institutions close and children are quarantined, the role of teachers and public education as a support/caregiving mechanism for families is laid bare, with women who work for pay scrambling to arrange childcare. Across many countries, women are overrepresented among low-wage workers, often disproportionately affected by pandemic cuts, who bear the brunt of the COVID-19 crisis. Most have no social security and crisis cover and, due to low wages, hardly any savings. In addition, women are leaving the workplace at an alarming rate. Oxfam estimates that women lost $800 billion in earnings in 2020 with 13 million fewer women in work compared to 2019. Layoffs and furloughs are only part of the picture. Women often leave employment due to non-existing or vanishing support systems, not because their jobs disappear.
The current care crisis highlights the value of care and striking care inequalities for various communities and individuals across the globe. Acknowledging, supporting and sharing the collective burden of reproductive labour and care work in health and social systems is the only way to ensure a sustainable post-COVID-19 recovery. Sharing responsibility more widely ensures care work is not simply transferred to and concentrated in women’s hands. Introducing new ideas and practices through formal (state) and other channels (academia, trade unions, grassroots, media etc.) can also help change norms and increase male participation in unpaid care. At the same time, we need to find ways to provide adequate salaries, social security schemes and safety nets for unpaid or informal labourers who bear so much of the burden in this crisis.
In many cases, policy discussions focus on huge stimulus packages for economic revival once the pandemic crisis recedes. The aim is to encourage growth and get economies ‘back on track’ by fixing existing structures, using conventional investments to boost growth, rather than seeking opportunities to rethink economic systems more profoundly and devise more resilient alternatives for a post-pandemic transformation. States, multilateral institutions, communities, and social movements should commit to dismantling the global economy’s destructive financial and legal architecture, from pro-austerity international financial institutions (IFIs) to the many trade and investment agreements that corporations leverage to seek COVID-19 relief measures that merely boost their own profits. States should work towards restructuring global markets and supply chains so that rebuilding transnational labour markets does not replicate exploitation and systematic rights violations for millions, especially women workers. Taxation is key to address (gender) inequality. Wealth and financial capital must be redistributed to fund quality public social services and curtail the disproportionate influence of a handful of powerful individuals and multinationals.
We must also address illicit financial flows and tax havens through a global oversight/reporting mechanism, enact fiscal justice measures to cut sales and consumption taxes for the poorest, and address gender and gender-diverse inequalities/biases and indirect discrimination in taxation policies.
Leaders of seven of the world’s most powerful, wealthiest nations will attend the upcoming G7 meeting. Decisions and agreements forged at G7 summits have an impact on human rights and women’s rights worldwide. Commitments must do more than pay lip service to women’s empowerment, for that means little if policies, investments, laws and budgets fail to reflect this priority.