Coronavirus crisis – a socialist feminist view

By International Socialist Alternative (ISA) Women’s Bureau (ISA is the international socialist organisation to which the Socialist Party is the Irish section of)

The covid-19 crisis has hit the world hard. Health care workers, whose voices were never heard when they screamed for more staff and resources in movements and strikes all over the world in the last years, are now society’s main asset in fighting this pandemic. They pay a heavy price for it: of those who have been tested positive in Italy, 10% are health workers. And while the rich can get themselves tested, most of the health workers can not! This is a feature of the crisis everywhere, not just in Italy. From the US to Britain or Belgium doctors and nurses are asking themselves publically the question whether they are infecting their patients, colleagues and family members. Two Italian nurses have reportedly committed suicide after having been tested positive for the virus.

The lives of millions of people have drastically changed in the last few weeks as more and more countries are going into (partial) lockdown, confining ever more people at home. There is obviously a huge difference between being confined in a small flat with your children, rather than being confined in the massive mansion with large outdoors like the former governor of California and actor Arnold Shwarzenegger — most people wouldn’t have room for a donkey and a mini pony inside or out! Not forgetting about the millions of homeless people in the world, the millions of refugees trapped in camps with hardly any access to water and soap and no access to medical services at all or the countless communities in the world who don’t have easy access to water and sanitary facilities. In Brazil for instance 60% of the population doesn’t have access to adequate sanitary provisions.

The Covid-19 pandemic clearly doesn’t have the same effect on everyone. Whereas anyyone can get infected, chances of surviving it are far lower for poor people who generally already have worse health leading to lower resistance to viruses. In countries like South Africa where TBC is widespread among poor layers of the population this virus can have a far more devastating effect. In Brazil it is not a coincidence that the first person who died of the virus was a black woman who worked as a house maid — black women being among the poorest.

But there is also a gender aspect: women are clearly among those bearing the worst of its effects. “The coronavirus fallout may be worse for women than men”, the World Economic Forum states. Although Chinese figures suggest that more men than women die of the disease, women bear the brunt as the majority of the health care workers as well as those who do the majority of care work within families and communities, making them more vulnerable to becoming infected as was shown by experience with epidemics in the past.

The 2014-’16 outbreak of Ebola in West-Africa showed how women’s predominant position in care work meant they were more likely to be infected, with no power to influence decision making. The little resources in the health sector that are there were concentrated on the fight against the virus, leading to a further breakdown of facilities for other health issues. The result was among others a high rise in maternal mortality. That is likely to be reproduced in the present crisis as the virus hits the neo-colonial world.

As schools and other services have closed, the majority of the extra domestic work falls on the shoulders of women. It is also expected that confinement will cause a peak in domestic violence — physical, sexual, psychological — towards women as well as children and LGBTQI+ youth. As women are generally overrepresented in temporary and precarious contracts in closed down workplaces such as bars and restaurants or in non-food shops, many of them will not profit from measures put in place to protect jobs and incomes, they will simply have lost their job.

This crisis highlights women’s vulnerable position in the labour market and in capitalist society as a whole, as well as the important role of women as unpaid carers in the family and the communities and as paid workers in sectors that have always been undervalued, with low wages, precarious contracts and bad working conditions, but now show how indispensable they actually are. This crisis has also shown very clearly the failure of the capitalist establishment to deal with this health hazard, with most of the measures they ultimately took — ever too little, too late — being enforced from below, with ordinary workers taking the decisions and implementing them, with governments and bosses lagging behind.

Austerity has left health care workers to fight as soldiers without adequate weapons

Women make up the majority of workers in the health and social care sector, 70% in 104 countries analysed by the World Health Organisation. In the Hubei region, where the virus first broke out, 90% of the personnel is made up of women. In Belgium it’s 80% in the hospitals, going up to more than 90% in the rest homes.

Working in the health and social sector is largely seen as an extension of the “natural” skills of women, for which it’s not necessary to provide decent wages. In general their wages would be below average. Now these functions are clearly vital, not just the highly qualified nurses and doctors, but also the lowest paid workers like the cleaners without whom the whole sector would have to close down. It is now clear that the lowest paid jobs are often among the most useful and valuable.

In country after country people applaud the workers in the health sector from their windows and balconies. The health care action group La Santé en Lutte (health in struggle) responded to this act of solidarity and support saying: “Thanks for your applause, but we ask you to not forget what happens now and to support us in future mobilisations. As soon as the lockdown is over, we have something to say and to do. And we will need you!”.

The death toll from the virus is highly influenced by the weak points in health care. All over the developed capitalist countries, decades of cuts in healthcare have created a situation in which there are not enough hospital beds, in which the staff are overworked and hit by an epidemic of work related diseases well before this crisis started, in which test facilities are largely insufficient. This was not just done to cut budgets, but was also part of a conscious drive to commercialisation and privatisation by successive neoliberal governments, creating a profit driven private care sector next to exsanguinated public care.. Countries like Italy have reduced the number of hospital beds from 10.6 beds per 1000 people in 1975 to 2.6 now; in France it went from 11.1 beds per 1000 in 1981 to 6.5 in 2013. In developing countries there has never been adequate health care — listing the countries that have less than 1 hospital bed per 1000 people comes down to listing the neocolonial world. When this virus spreads in continents like Africa the results will be catastrophic.

South Korea seems to have been the only country that has kept its testing facilities at a sufficient number to avoid a lockdown to contain infection, whereas European countries and the US went into this crisis totally unprepared. A case in point was the destruction in Belgium in 2019 of the strategic reserve of 6 million surgical masks after bad storage by the defence department had made them unusable. Out of budget considerations, the right wing government decided not to renew the stocks, which left even the health workers themselves without protection in the first weeks of the outbreak.

Pictures of exhausted nurses, with marks of their masks and protective glasses imprinted on their faces, will become iconic pictures related to this crisis — we have to make sure it is not forgotten afterwards. Because it’s not the case that the establishment didn’t know about the understaffing in the health sector: all over the world we saw massive strike movements in the last years. In France last year there was a massive strike that spread over almost all emergency units, but as elsewhere the response of the government was a continuation of austerity, including further commercialisation of the sector.

Health workers all over the world are now faced with a situation in which doing double shifts has become the new normal. It is widely expected that the present crisis in the sector will be followed by a burn out crisis among the personnel.If the sector holds in this crisis, it will not be thanks to the establishment, but thanks to the huge sacrifices of the personnel, including the workers who clean and disinfect the hospitals and other care institutions.

Abortion rights under attack

In fighting this pandemic the sector will not be able to also keep up normal services. All non-essential and non-urgent care is postponed, with some states in the US using this to include abortion in non-essential care. With restrictions on travel, this amounts to the rolling back of abortion rights in the US. Obviously this has to be fought. Pressure must be built immediately like the Brazilian women’s organisations did in May last year, when the governor of São Paulo decreed to close one of the rare hospitals that perform abortions in the cases in which the law allows it — only days later it reopened.

Women wanting an early term abortion should be able to get prescriptions for abortion pills online or by a simple phone call, to be taken at home, late term abortions should be included in urgent care. In the same way women on fertility treatment should be able to maintain those.

In the UK, these rights are being denied, completely unnecessarily. In fact, in Ireland measures have been taken to allow access to abortion pills over the phone, due to pressure from below, showing that this could be the case in ‘normal’ times. We should demand that this continues after the pandemic subsides!

The protective measures installed in the hospitals lead to a situation in which women have to give birth on their own, their partner not being allowed in. Meanwhile, maternity units are being closed as midwives are deployed elsewhere, or are isolating as a result of Coronavirus At the same time elderly patients die alone in rest homes and in their houses as no visitors are allowed. Only access to testing could help prevent these traumatic experiences. In the situation today when testing is often up to private labs, those who get priority are not those who need it most, but those who have the money to pay for it!

In many countries elderly people infected with the virus are not even brought to hospital as there is little hope for them to survive and hospitals fill up. That society is forced to make such brutal and inhumane judgment is an indictment of capitalism in itself!

The “soldiers” keeping society afloat in these hard times are not just the health workers. Workers in food distribution, cleaners of essential workplaces, public transport workers, social workers are all thrown in work, many of them also with enhanced work loads, working double shifts. Any measures that were taken to protect them from infection have generally not been taken by the authorities or the bosses, but had to be enforced from below by trade unions and ordinary workers.

Once the first outbreak is behind us and governments pass on from huge injections of funds to presenting the bill to the majority of the population, which is inevitable now because of the coming worldwide economic crisis, we will have to step up the fight. We need to demand more public resources invested in the health care sector, decent steady employment contracts,a minimum wage to eradicate low wages and get rid of the neoliberal logic that the only jobs that are worth decent wages are those that produce profits for the super-rich.

Women workers and precarity

A struggle is going on in the ‘non-essential’ workplaces as workers are not prepared to take the risk of getting infected or to infect their families in order to keep profits flowing and demanding technical unemployment schemes. But in many of the closed down sectors — heavily feminised sectors such as the hospitality sector and non-food shops — workers don’t have steady contracts and have been put out of work. They are at best falling back on social security and welfare schemes that have been emptied out by decades of under investment and harsh austerity following the 2008 financial and economic crisis.

In countries like Belgium their unemployment or welfare benefits will be well under the poverty line, definitely when they are living together with a wage-earning partner. Women all over the world have been the biggest victims of the witch-hunt on the unemployed, leaving them with no right to benefits or with just a right to a pittance. A massive attack on the incomes of working class families, it also left them more dependent on their partners if they have them. One parent families — 22% of the families with children in the Netherlands — are condemned to poverty through low wages and low benefits, combined with high costs for housing. Women are overwhelmingly likely to be the head of single parent families (90% in Britain, for example).

As the Covid-19 crisis leads to the fastest ever developing economic crisis many of them will not find new jobs as a significant number of these closed down companies, especially small businesses, will go bankrupt in the coming months.

Working at home & “parental burnout”

With a massive turning to remote work for those who are able to do so, many workers, mostly women, are now faced with having to work from home with their children present. When in normal times women face their domestic work after their paid work, collecting kids from school, shopping, preparing food, washing, helping children with their homework etc.,now many of the parents with small children face having to get in their hours of paid work before or after long days of caring for their children. As a Belgian mother of two small children reported in the press: “I put the alarm on 4 in the morning in order to get some work done”. Blogs show many women cracking under the pressure, feeling they can’t do anything right anymore: not performing well in their jobs, feeling at the same time that they are bad parents.

According to figures from the World Economic Forum in normal times women perform 76.2% of unpaid care and services in the family. This is part of a centuries old tradition: women’s oppression started with pushing women out of the productive sphere, putting them under control and making them dependent on the male head of the family, as part of the first class societies tens of thousands of years ago. But capitalist society has adapted women’s oppression and institutionalised sexism to its own needs, it recreates and reinforces it every day and in every field of life. It does it in the lack of affordable and quality services that permit women workers to combine work and family. It does it also in the fact that women’s low wages make it logical for it to be the woman in the household who takes a step back in paid work when care for children requires one parent to be more at home. Tradition and material reality combine to keep women in this position of unpaid labour in the household.

The closing of schools in many countries has now enormously added to the number of hours spent on this part of the “double-day” task of women. Trade unions have to mount pressure right now to challenge the notion that workers can be simultaneously working their normal hours while caring full time for their children. As a first step their working hours need to be reduced by enforcing a number of free days per week without loss of pay (not eating into their normal vacations), reducing the productivity that is expected of them. In the longer run this higher consciousness about parental responsibility should be used to fight for the right of parents to be at home without loss of pay when their children are ill or not able to go to school, fully funded, free child care and public recreational facilities for children and youth during the summer school holidays.

The fact that education is one of those sectors in society that has been ravaged by austerity, with records in understaffing being beaten year after year, makes schemes for home schooling methods that don’t expect parents to be sole teachers of their children difficult to set in place, even if technological means to do it are far more present than they have ever been. A highly feminised sector, many teachers find themselves at home with their children and unable to concentrate on developing such methods for the period of confinement.

Teachers are now sounding the alarm bells for massive groups of pupils and students being left behind, the poorest of them not having the necessary tools — computers, internet connection — to keep up and/or not having parents that are able to help them due to their working hours,due to the fact that they don’t have the necessary skills, or language barriers. Whereas in the 1960s and 1970s the democratisation of education in the advanced capitalist countries made it possible for many working class youth to obtain higher qualifications than the generation of their parents, the cut-down education system of today doesn’t get such results, emphasising social differences more than helping overcome them. This crisis will make things even worse.

In many countries, while classes are abolished, schools remain open for children of the essential workers. But many families refuse to put their children there due to the massive insecurity through the lack of coronavirus testing. Schools will have to reopen at some point, but the reopening of schools by right-wing governments in the interests of business will have to be resisted. Reopening can only happen if it can be done safely, with mass and repetitive testing and infection protection for staff and students alike. A reopening plan should be developed with staff representatives, trade unions, parent organisations and students — they are the ones who can manage the situation in the interests of society and not to guarantee private profits.

As long as they don’t reopen, a generalised “parental burnout” is developing, with exhausted parents performing at least two full-time jobs for weeks on end. The Family League in Belgium writes: “if this situation lasts numerous parents will crack and it is preferable to assure immediately a number of free days to take alternately by the parents when it is possible, rather than be faced with a series of burnouts a couple of weeks from now (…) with parents risking professional as well as parental burnouts”. (March 20, Le Ligueur)

Next to the risks for the mental health of parents, institutions for child welfare are fearing heightened tensions in many families, putting the children at risk. For families that were already followed by social services because of problematic situations, a lot of these services have closed down or have to work in very difficult circumstances. We also see the first reports of growing tensions coming from young LGBTQI+ people now confined with their parents not accepting them.

The situation is not better for those parents that work in sectors that are still open. Not just in the health sector, but also for instance in the food distribution sector or in cleaning services workers are on double shifts today, coming home to still having to perform their domestic duties with children that have been in school, but without having had classes and being in need of attention.

Domestic violence

Already before the outbreak of the crisis, China Worker reported about a survey by the regime-controlled All-China Women’s Federation that found that 24.7% of married women between the ages of 24 and 60 suffered domestic violence from their spouses. “Fewer than 4 percent of domestic violence complaints have been upheld and the fewer than 20 percent of these victims have succeeded with a restraining order application”.

The isolation at home now means they are locked in with their abusers. “NGO’s have reported an increase in domestic violence. Ms Cao, a woman beaten by her boyfriend in the southern city of Shenzhen, uploaded to Weibo her conversation with a police mediator after he urged her to drop the case: “He has a good job,” he is heard saying. “Do you really want to ruin him?”, according to the Economist, march 7. Protest of all sorts is heavily repressed by the dictatorship, but Chinese women are massively fulminating online.

In just one of the examples the Blue Sky, an anti-domestic violence NGO in Hubei’s Lijian County, received a total of 175 reports of domestic violence in February, three times the number of complaints received in February 2019. Travel restrictions make it even more difficult than in normal times to escape their abusers. Courts, counselling and legal services have become largely inaccessible and while victims can lodge complaints of domestic violence online, those unfamiliar with the internet are at a disadvantage. With assistance for victims being largely left to NGOs, these organisations express concern that in the present crisis, followed by the economic crisis that has already started, it is difficult to get the necessary funds to help victims out.

It is not different in other countries that are faced with the virus outbreak. In the US the National Domestic Violence Hotline saw a growing number of calls from victims even before the confinement measures. Katie Ray-Jones, CEO of the hotline, reported in Time magazine that abusers use the virus outbreak to isolate their victims even more than usual. In the Brazilian state of Rio de Janeiro court services reported on March 24 that they had an increase of 50% in reports of domestic violence. In a country that already has a very high rate of domestic violence, 33.46% according to the OECD, that is a very alarming increase.

In the Spanish state, which has seen massive movements and strikes against sexist violence in recent years, women’s organisations and institutions dealing with the problem of domestic violence are extremely worried. The pressure from the movements of the last years has led the government of the Canary Islands to launch a campaign to help victims, called Mascarilla-19. Refuges remain open, but in the present situation it is even more difficult to get in contact with victims. Mascarilla-19 is a code victims can use when going to the pharmacy: you ask for it and leave your address for the pharmacists to contact help services. In the whole of Spain courts will remain open and treat domestic violence reports as a priority.

Different reports from several countries show how women’s shelters, in most countries based on NGOs rather than state institutions, were generally already full before the pandemic took hold. In Belgium, waiting lists are in place in normal situations, meaning it can take weeks and even months before a place is available. Not only are they full, all over the world they have massive difficulties to maintain social distancing and make their shelters safe.

Whereas in some countries reports went up, like in the US before lockdown measures, in many countries reports have actually reduced. As many French NGOs involved in helping domestic violence victims report that is not because the problem has lessened, but because their abusers are at home day and night, making it extremely difficult for victims to ask for help as in normal times victims would generally call services when their abusers are off to work. Solfa, a women’s association in Lille, France, reported in Le Monde (March 25) that they are “not daring to phone the women we usually follow by fear of taking the risk to expose them” now their abusers can be at home at any time. Women’s associations in France are demanding to urgently identify hotels and other facilities to help victims.

Pressure will have to be built for emergency measures to deal with this crisis. The massive stress and insecurity in which big numbers of people find themselves will not only aggravate the situation for women and children in already existing abusive relationships, but risks creating problems in relationships that were not abusive before.

Preparing for a fight

Yesterday nurses and other staff in the health sector, workers in the distribution sector, cleaners, grocery clerks were undervalued workers. They were faced with a heavy workload as they were forced year after year doing more work with less hands. These traditional feminised sectors of the workforce are all underpaid and faced with precarious contracts. Today they are among the nation’s heroes in the face of this massive health crisis. Politicians who are today hypocritically clapping along for the health workers will tomorrow, after the first peak of the virus, be faced with workers’ demands for a living wage, for increased pay and conditions in those sectors, including more personnel, for a massive public investment in health care with far more support by the whole working class.

The massive pumping of money in the economy to prevent total meltdown which has now started all over the world is primarily aimed at keeping the economy going rather than reinforcing the indispensable social tissue these sectors provide. Once the first peak is over, the stimulus packages will have driven state debt to new and unprecedented levels. The economic crisis is now already deeper than the crisis of 2008, rather resembling the economic depression of the 1930s. Everywhere workers, and especially those in public services and health care, are still paying the price for the 2008 crisis and the harsh austerity that followed.

The capitalist establishment will present the bill for this new crisis to the working class and the poorest layers of the population. In many states governments have obtained special powers, special restrictive measures have been introduced to impose social distancing, including a ban on protests, demonstrations and strikes. We will have to fight these restrictions when they are used not to contain the virus spread, but to contain protest and anger developing against their new austerity packages.

The workers in highly feminised sectors of health care, education and retail were in the forefront of working class struggles against the austerity that followed the 2008 crisis, the women’s movement was in the forefront of a generalised struggle against neoliberal policies in many Latin-American countries, in the Middle East and North Africa. The Covid-19 struggle will temporarily push those struggles into the background as ordinary people now have to reorganise their lives in combating the spread of the virus. But these struggles will be back with intensity once the first period of chaos is over.

Socialist feminists will have to organise to defend the demands of women workers for massive investment in these non-profitable but absolutely indispensable jobs. The message must be clear: care work cannot be commercialised nor put on a diet without it losing a lot of its efficiency for the broad layers of the population! They will have to present demands and strategies for the struggles on the basis of this new consciousness about the role of women’s work — paid and unpaid — in the workplaces, in the family and in the communities, as all reports show that in the many spontaneous assistance groups that are being set up women make up the majority of helpers.They’ll have to help broaden the understanding of the situation of double oppression (as women and as workers) and violence to which women workers are subjected under capitalism.

Capitalist parties and their feminist public figures will have no answers, as the reinforcement and a higher valuation of women’s work would cut into the profits for the tiny minority of billionaires they defend and represent. We need to get the message out that only a world in which the needs of the population are met collectively will be able to deal efficiently with such health crises. Only such a society will be able to emancipate the majority of women. Such a society can only be a socialist society, in which the working class unites all oppressed layers behind a struggle to take control out of the hands of the billionaire class, to plan the world’s production to satisfy the world’s demands. That is the world we fight for — today often isolated in our houses, tomorrow back on the streets!