Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Gender and the Virus

Jennifer Cooke

A friend in her early forties has the onset of her IVF treatment cancelled because of Covid-19. She is devastated. Another is in lockdown with a partner many of us know is overly controlling and who we suspect of abuse. A woman who cleans houses locally tells me she lost all her clients the day the government ordered the UK population to limit social contact to their household. She is part of the informal economy and will have to claim for the UK’s Universal Credit benefits scheme. The next available appointments are in late May. All the fifteen women working for the National Health Service who have died from corona virus in the UK so far had jobs in the lower spectrum of the pay scale. They were nurses, midwives, healthcare support workers, and a pharmacist. Over half were women of colour. In the same way that European austerity measures after the financial crash of 2007-8 hit women harder than men, and women of colour even harder than white women, Covid-19 makes life harder and more dangerous for women, even if statistically it appears to have killed fewer of them globally. This is part of the complexly gendered consequences of the pandemic. 

Countries that have so far controlled their outbreaks most effectively have women at the helm, although they tend to be smaller countries with more self-contained economies than either the UK or the USA. Yet these societies still have elderly populations who are tended to primarily by women, whether in paid employment or unpaid domestic work. The UK has an emerging scandal over care home workers’ access to PPE and the problems of quarantining patients with difficult to manage conditions like Alzheimer’s, which will doubtless have its echoes in many countries where, like here, care homes are full of women residents and workers. In the UK and the USA, we might wonder who is taking on the lion’s share of home-schooling, while knowing full well what the answer is likely to be. Across the world, it is always the poorest who are the most vulnerable during calamities, whether those are man-made financial crises, destructive natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina, or a pandemic like Covid-19. Women are in less secure employment, earn less when they are working, and have more caring responsibilities than men. They are more likely to suffer unconscious bias and discrimination. They are more likely to experience violence and even death at the hands of their partners.

I don’t think feminism has anything new to learn from Covid-19 but the situation we all find ourselves in does bring into sharper visibility the problems women already encounter, especially poorer women and those in ethnic minority groups, many of whom have had to continue working in supermarkets, as carers, and as frontline health workers, whereas more affluent women are able to work from home. On the other hand, societies have much to learn from feminists during the pandemic, especially in understanding how different factors intersect to inflame the immiseration of the already vulnerable and in learning new strategies from activists for building community solidarity and support. So often, activist feminist groups are organised from within and run by the very communities that are most affected and most at risk. We need to listen to them, amplify their voices when they make demands about what they need, and fight for their rights to a better, fairer society. We need to insist on the social and economic revaluation of the care work that women have long provided, to demand better recompense for the kind of work that right now is keeping others safe and saving lives, possibly even the life of someone you know. If we fail to prioritise this, then we all, men and women in all walks of life, will be poorer for it.

Contemporary Feminist Life-Writing by Jennifer Cooke
Contemporary Feminist Life-Writing by Jennifer Cooke

About The Author

Jennifer Cooke

Jennifer Cooke is Senior Lecturer in English at Loughborough University. She is the editor of New Feminist Studies (Cambridge, forthcoming), Scenes of Intimacy: Reading, Writing an...

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