The coronavirus has led to a crisis of unprecedented scale, the effects of which are being felt differently by different people. Women, especially those living in poverty, are in an increasingly vulnerable position. This article explores the crisis from a feminist perspective and highlights the dangers of a gender-blind response.
The COVID-19 pandemic: Why we need to start listening to feminist economists.
Shreya Nambiar is a recent graduate of Development Economics from SOAS University. She is interested in economics from a feminist perspective and has spent three years in the international development space working in microfinance in India and crowdfunding in Japan.
The consistent reoccurrence of economic crises is undeniable. However, our experience under crisis is shaped by the social groups within which we exist. Gender, class, caste and religion have greatly affected a person’s ability to cope and respond to them. What is unique about the current economic crisis is that it is born out of a global health emergency, further exacerbating pre-existing inequalities faced by women, the poor and minority groups.
COVID-19 has brought the productive economy to its knees. To protect more lives and ensure the long-term smooth functioning of the economy, governments have had to lock-down entire countries, ordering people to self-isolate as a way to contain the spread of the disease. Physical distancing measures enforced almost everywhere have left offices, factories, shops, bars and restaurants unable to operate, compromising our ability to perform a considerable amount of productive and commercial activities and destroying the livelihoods of many.
The central feature of response has been the importance given to sustaining or taking care of the people who make up the productive work force that keeps our economy afloat. The pandemic has called for the unprecedented mobilisation of the “care economy” in order to ensure the health and safety of our families and our societies. The care economy includes the formal health-care sector and social security infrastructure at the state level that also extends into the unpaid sector through activities such as cooking, cleaning and caretaking done in the privacy of our homes. These types of activities and institutions, termed as “social reproduction” by feminist economists, often lies outside the realm of mainstream economics because it is not considered to be a part of the “productive” economy. However, in its absence, the reproduction of human life or the production of a healthy labour force that drives the productive economy is impossible.
Social reproduction theorists, like Nancy Fraser and Tithi Bhattacharya, have been discussing the importance of valuing such activities and its role in sustaining our economy and society as we know it. Within this stream of economics, ‘social reproduction’ is used as a framework through which one can understand the economy, allowing us to pinpoint the source of an economy’s wealth and labour power.
Capitalist and social reproduction frameworks have very different vantage points. Since capitalism concentrates on capital accumulation for the sake of profit making, the production of “things” is more valuable than the people who make them. Naturally, under a capitalist framework, activities that come under the realm of social reproduction, being “unproductive”, are often unpaid, low paid and devalued, with the most vulnerable of society often performing this work.
Historically, social reproduction activities have been gendered with women taking up a larger share. With the rise of capitalism, economic production moved away from the household, taking place mostly in offices and factories in return for wages while social reproduction was relegated to the private sphere or provided by the state. With the global dominance of neo-liberal, free market economics, that started in the US and the UK in the 80’s and subsequently spread to the rest of the world, there has been a rolling back of the welfare state in the name of accelerating economic growth, shifting the burden of welfare provisioning from the state onto households. This has meant massive cuts to public services like health care, child-care and education that women, especially single mothers, the poor, disabled and minority groups depend on most.
The gendered implications are pervasive but often ignored. We have a situation in which higher income households have the ability to outsource care work in the form of domestic help, nannies etc while lower income households have to take on the double burden of work – earn an income (often in the form of care work in other people’s homes for little money) while also caring for their families.
Domestic help, though existing within the paid economy, often face extremely low wages and with little to no protection from the state. At the same time, there is a race, class and caste dimension that is important to point out. In the West, members of the black, asian, minors ethnic (BAME) community make up a majority of this labour force. In India, care workers are most often women, from poor backgrounds or from lower castes. Similarly, within the formal healthcare system women make up 70% of healthcare workers globally, most making up positions within the lowest income bracket (eg. nurses, health facility service staff, cleaners).
We have grown accustomed to protecting the “economy” at all costs. A country’s GDP has become an indication of its relative economic development and strength. This usually results in macroeconomic policy that is geared towards accelerating economic growth above all else. Relying on a single measure of economic success is bound to give importance to narrow perceptions of economic development, justifying social development goals such as gender equality or universal literacy in terms of GDP or the pursuit of accelerating a country’s economic growth rate.
Global austerity measures – cuts to public spending in order to reduce government budget deficits – have led us to believe that investment into a stronger welfare state and public health infrastructure are unnecessary distractions on the road to economic success. However it is a strong social safety net and investment into public healthcare infrastructure that is required to survive a crisis of this kind. For example, though India’s healthcare budget has been steadily increasing, it has still remained below 1% of total national income until 2019.
The irony is that this crisis has made economists and policy-makers reconsider the value of work that is outside the purview of the market sphere. In order to survive this crisis, there will have to be an unprecedented shift away from profits and economic growth towards mobilising resources to allow for care work to take place at a much larger scale. It has made visible the work that is essential for any economy to thrive but that capitalism has left invisible. What was previously deemed “unskilled” work is now being transformed into essential work. Care has taken a central position in the economy and in discourse, turning on its head the very foundations upon which work is organised under capitalism.
Looking at India, there are numerous articles and discussions centred on Kerala’s relative success in combating the spread of the disease. Comparatively, Kerala has the highest recovery rate in India while Gujarat has the lowest, despite Gujarat having a much higher economic growth rate than Kerala. The ‘Gujarat Model’ exemplifies neo-liberal development policy that is geared towards achieving economic growth at all costs, even at the expense of social welfare. According to CBHI (2013) data, Kerala’s investment into public health care was Rs. 507 per capita while Gujarat’s was only Rs. 320 per capita. We see now that the Kerala government’s strong investment into healthcare, social security and education, has left the state in a better position to handle the current crisis. Especially important is the decentralisation of power in Kerala with village councils able to drive community-led efforts to curb the spread, as was done during the Nipah virus outbreak. Though this in no way solves the gender inequality issue, it definitely eases the strain off of households.
COVID – 19 has laid bare the weaknesses that exist in our economy today. What is clear is that the crisis will affect women and marginalised groups differently. The question is whether we learn from this experience and move towards a more equitable set-up, one that protects women and minorities, not just the market.
Though this crisis has had devastating impacts, it should be looked at as a chance to encourage long-run changes to the perception of ‘women’s work’ and activities within the realm of social reproduction. Evidence from Kerala has brought to light the importance of an effective welfare state without which those who depend on it the most, women and minority groups, will have little chance of coming out of the next economic crisis unscathed.
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