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Webinar from the IAFFE reflects on COVID-19 from a feminist economist perspective


Daisy Sibun reflects on observations and opinions made by speakers during a webinar hosted by the International Association for Feminist Economics (IAFFE)  titled “Feminist Economics Perspectives on COVID-19″.

The COVID-19 crisis affects us all, but it will not affect us all equally. The way that the crisis impacts the distribution of work, labour rights and what is valued in the economy will be a global and deeply gendered process. On Wednesday 15th April, the International Association for Feminist Economics (IAFFE) held a webinar titled “Feminist Economics Perspectives on COVID-19”. The IAFFE brought together Nancy Folbre from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Naila Kabeer from the London School of Economics and Jeanine Anderson from the Catholic University of Peru to present their thoughts on the social and economic implications of the COVID-19 crisis on issues of gender and other intersecting inequalities.

Here are five of their most pressing observations on the gendered implications of COVID-19 that must imbue the way we think about vulnerability and social protection in this current context and beyond:

Care workers are under-valued, under-paid and under-protected.

As Folbre emphasised, women are the majority of this care workforce. Care work takes place both formally in the public sphere and informally in the domestic sphere and, as such, can be both paid and unpaid. COVID-19 is putting particular pressure on all forms of care work and care workers are particularly vulnerable to the virus since they are working on the frontline often without adequate personal protective equipment (PPE). The pandemic has also exposed just how dependent our economies are on the provision of this labour. Folbre explained that we should pay more attention to why care work is so under-valued in society, despite playing a huge role in the production and re-production of economic growth,  pointing to the intersecting vulnerabilities that affect care-workers across the lines of class, race, immigration status and other inequalities.

Folbre also highlighted how homeschooling, job loss and the transfer of work into the home has significantly increased the burden of care-work on household members who provide “reproductive labour” within the home, referring to the domestic caring activities that reproduce the workforce such as cooking, washing clothes and even providing emotional support. She suggested that we may need to look beyond using the metric of income to measure welfare at the intra-household level in the time of COVID-19 and explore time use as an alternative. Folbre proposed that this could help us to gain a more nuanced understanding of the economic and social impact of the pandemic, beyond measured income and GDP.

The crisis has laid bare the crude fault lines of societies’ inequalities.

Kabeer argued that there is a certain revelatory function of crises in laying bare and shining a light on the inequalities that exist in a society. In the case of COVID-19, she explained that the ensuing economic and social fall-out from disrupted global supply chains, job loss and an increased strain on health and care systems will be far from equally distributed. She explained, for example, that the racialised and gendered element to healthcare workers’ vulnerabilities can be seen in the UK government’s failure to count how many healthcare workers, besides doctors, have lost their lives in the fight against the virus in UK hospitals. Nurses and cleaning staff – who are predominantly lower-income and/or black and minority ethnicity (BAME) – are often valued less, because they provide care-work which is traditionally dismissed by society.

Our failure to learn from the past has got us here.

Kabeer also highlighted how it is our failure to learn from past crises that has left us so ill-equipped to deal with the consequences of COVID-19. Active political decisions to pursue policies such as austerity have eroded the capacity of public sector services to remain responsive, effective and inclusive. Safety nets have remained residual even through multiple crises of the past –including the 2008 global financial crisis that should have taught us the importance of investing in universal access to public services, workers’ protections and universal social protection. The results have been rising inequalities, the spread of precarious work and an increase in domestic violence. This is political and we must actively take the lessons of the past and present and shape what kind of outcomes we want to turn those into, remembering that our failure to do so thus far so has got us to where we are now.

The different ways that countries respond to crises often hinges upon “the importance of the (political) moment.”

Anderson reminded us – using the example of the Government of Peru’s new-found political stability – that the capability and willingness of governments to respond quickly and “big enough” to introduce measures to protect citizens from the economic impacts of the virus in a large part depends often on the character and distribution of interests of a particular government in power.

In my opinion, change is often a question of political will above anything else. This is true of introducing social protection policies at “normal” times – with countries able to introduce progressive social protection policies when the political will and settlement is right, despite perennial objections from International Financial Institutions about fiscal space – but becomes even truer in times of crisis. If the moment is right, countries can protect their citizens from the worst economic impacts of the crisis by fulfilling on their obligation to provide job protections and regular monthly income transfers as part of a universal life course social protection system. Of course, if there was ever a time that governments should have the political will to introduce such policies, it is now. Read more about why here.

An approach to social protection that favours sanction-based conditional cash transfers (CCTs) has overlooked the value of community care networks and has left many communities ill-prepared to respond to COVID-19 on the ground.

Anderson also highlighted, with reference to the context of Peru, that recent non-rights-based approaches to social protection have undermined the value of social care and community health networks as vital complements to cash transfers. She explained that large government programmes that monitor and police recipients to ensure they meet the conditions attached to CCTs such as educational or nutritional benchmarks – and, in doing so, invoke notions of the “deserving” and “undeserving poor” – stand in stark contrast to community-centred initiatives. She explained that the two approaches are rooted in very different philosophies of how you even understand and measure – let alone meet – the needs of people in the community. She concluded that a balance between large government cash transfers and community care must be found.

Indeed, I think that social care is a perennially ignored component of building any strong rights-based social protection system. And, if any crisis can teach us the value of having social and health workers on the ground who understand the needs of their communities, it is this one

Read more like this:

Pathways’ Perspectives: What has the Covid-19 crisis taught us about social protection?

Blog: COVID-19: are we all in the same boat?

Blog:  COVID-19’s total burden of disease extends beyond those who get sick, and this has potentially deadly consequences for women and girls.

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