The COVID-19 pandemic: (En)gendering care
On November 20, 2020, the Gender and Sexuality Research Cluster at the National University of Singapore (NUS), housed under the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, organised a webinar on Gender and the COVID-19 pandemic that sought to consolidate recent research from the fields of economics, communications, public health, cultural anthropology, and sociolinguistics. Metrical reports of the coronavirus continue to monopolise the world news, and we rely, almost exclusively, on infection and death rates as a measurement of how the pandemic is developing, as an indication of its impact, and as a prediction of when it might end. It was clear that the webinar took place in a very timely manner, and was well-received by global attendees. While the healthcare treatments surrounding COVID-19 remain the utmost priority, the sociocultural consequences – lockdowns, healthcare access, and limited mobility – weigh just as heavy. The works presented shared gender as a common factor that informed fresh perspectives on inequality, social justice, and discrimination around the globe, bringing together a critical discussion on how the pandemic has shaped our society as gendered entities.
With lockdowns implemented across cities, we have begun to conflate what second-wave feminists used to delineate as public and private spheres, populated by men and women respectively. This conflation, as observed by Olya Zayts-Spence (University of Hong Kong), has forced us to rethink household management and childcare as duties relegated to mothers, especially if they also concurrently hold a salaried job. ‘Working’ mothers (Zayts-Spence rightfully highlights the sexist assumptions of this term) have their parental and professional roles intensified due to lockdowns, leading to a rise in issues in mental health. But all is not lost, according to Rebecca Starr (NUS) and her colleagues’ analysis of COVID-19-themed advertisements on Facebook – companies in Singapore draw on discourses of empowered femininity to encourage women to consume their products as a way of mitigating the challenges of working from home. These ads link the consumption of products like pain-relievers, massages, and beauty teas with an empowered womanhood that Singaporean mothers can embody to overcome the perils of the pandemic, reifying entrenched gender roles in conflated spheres.
The coronavirus cannot discriminate along the lines of gender, or so we thought. Biological differences in immunological defence and lifestyle factors, as Sonia Akter’s (NUS) research shows, have little to do with the early statistical evidence that more men than women are dying from COVID-19 in the US. Rather, the higher mortality rate for men is likely attributed to an existing gendered inequality in hospital access; men generally have more access to hospitals across the different states, which drove up the mortality rates reported by healthcare professionals. Akter finds that the gender gap in COVID-19-related deaths outside of the hospital is almost negligible (see Akter 2020 for more info). This unequal access to healthcare is amplified outside of the US. For instance, Lisa Johnson’s (University of Trier) anthropological study of Jamaican medicine reveals an increased demand for ‘bush medicine’ due to the lack of access to mainstream healthcare. Bush medication – herbal medicinal practices with Indian, Chinese, and African influences – is seen as an alternative to Western medicine, and bush doctors are predominantly men. The lack of healthcare availability led to a rise in the popularity for bush doctors, yet practitioners of such healing methods are almost always women. Swati Bhattacharjee (Ananda Bazar Patrika) also sheds light on Accredited Social Health Activists (ASHAs) in India, who are female healthcare workers that take on frontline duties in raising awareness on preventive measures, delivering food to the quarantined, and collecting data and information on the pandemic. These ‘warriors without a shield’ do not have comprehensive access to masks, gloves, and other equipment needed to protect them from COVID-19 despite their increased exposure, and are treated as unclean carriers of the coronavirus by Indian society; they are underpaid, under-supported; and undervalued. Saravana Ravindran’s (NUS) work also demonstrates how Indian women are facing a marked increase in domestic violence as a consequence of strict lockdowns in India, fuelled and exacerbated by existing tolerant attitudes towards gender-based violence. It is evident that sociocultural factors interface with the biological threat of the coronavirus to disproportionately affect women around the world, deepening gendered fault lines that women have always precariously stood over.
How should we reimagine care in such times? Astrid Fellner (Saarland University) asks this important question in her presentation on art and other forms of cultural productions surrounding the pandemic. She contends that in our ‘differential confinements’, we have turned to art in all its varied forms as a way to cope and care, and marginal people – women and sexual and racial minorities – have engaged in mutual aid to demonstrate a much needed, much overdue solidarity. And such forms of care cannot be understated, especially when Eva Nossem (Saarland University) shows how the pandemic has shored up renewed homophobic and transphobic sentiments surrounding the act of wearing a mask; anti-maskers see it as emasculating, weak, and a threat to their personal liberty. In a recent interview, Judith Butler spoke about how the pandemic has brought about new understandings of what it means to be grievable – whose lives, if lost, count as a loss? The Gender and the COVID-19 pandemic webinar tries to probe at this question from the perspective of gender and sexuality across the globe. As we anticipate an effective vaccine, which tries to promise the restart of an already plaguing society, we remain hopeful for our return to a new normal. We want to welcome the reinstatement of our freedoms for all. Yet we also stand to lose sight of the lessons learned through the pain and deaths of countless others, if we continue to be careless. How, then, might we be careful? We must do exactly that: we give, and we take, care.
National University of Singapore
Akter, Sonia (2020). The Gender Gap in COVID-19 Mortality in the United States. Feminist Economics 1-28.
Butler, Judith & Yancy, George (2020). Interview: Mourning Is a Political Act Amid the Pandemic and Its Disparities (Republication). Bioethical Inquiry.