The Covid-19 virus is deadly. This is a pandemic and unprecedented measures need to be put in place in order to save human lives.
Yet, as we make extraordinary adjustments for the sake of this objective, there is increasing recognition of the ways in which the health-related warlike emergency measures are disproportionately affecting specific sections of our society adversely.
Governments have responded to these in various ways, some more proactive and considerate than others, but their overarching message has been: this is the price we have to pay to halt the spread of the virus.
If saving human lives is the overarching objective, it is worth asking ourselves this question: could the lockdown, which is essential, be organised better to minimise or eliminate the loss of lives from the negative consequences of the pandemic management measures? Also, while some adverse effects may not have easy solutions, it is still imperative that we identify them.
There are stories about the immense hardships faced by migrant workers, daily wagers, health workers, and people with disabilities. There are accounts of how the new norm of “social distancing” is not being seen for what it is, viz., physical distancing, but is seen as a license for glorifying the demeaning and despicable, not to mention illegal, practice of untouchability towards castes that were stigmatised for doing the most menial jobs nobody else wanted to do.
Commentators have made excellent suggestions about how some of these hardships could be alleviated. The central government finally announced a set of measures; whether these are adequate to the enormity of the challenge is a moot point.
Coupled with these are racist attacks on people from north-east India because of their similarity with Chinese phenotype. India is not unique in this regard; other countries are experiencing similar negative whiplash on specific sections of their populations.
As the spread of the virus gives a fillip to all kinds of discrimination, we need a reality check. Halt the spread of the virus? Of course. But should that translate into stigmatising groups, imposing the burden of adjustment on the most vulnerable? No. In an eminently watchable video on essential hygiene to halt the spread of the coronavirus, an Italian grandma reminds us that the virus has no nationality. One day there will be a vaccine for it, and it will die.
The discrimination will endure. There is no vaccine for it.
The one section of the population that is painfully, but sadly not surprisingly, absent from this discussion of negative consequences (whether unintended or foreseen but inevitable) of the anti-pandemic measures has been women. Painfully because the negative consequences of pandemic control measures on women are wide and deep. Unsurprisingly because this is yet another instance of a gender-blind policy that ignores its disproportionate impact on women.
The intimate partner violence curve
While gender has been absent from the official lens everywhere, the last week has seen a few (although far fewer than warranted) pieces about the impact of pandemic management measures on women.
The most horrific and obvious impact of the lockdown imposed to flatten the curve has been a rise in domestic and intimate partner violence (IPV) as has been noted for the US, the UK, and China, among other countries. A rise in domestic violence (DV) literally increases the risk to women’s lives: as one curve gets flattened, the other one slopes upwards, perhaps not exponentially, but sharply, nevertheless.
The accounts are painful to read. Women are being battered by frustrated partners and being threatened to be kicked out of the house if they fell sick. A child called a US helpline to report that her mother’s partner had abused her mother and her. With schools and workplaces shut, women and girls in abusive situations have no respite.
What, if anything, can be done?
One of the big myths about DV and IPV is that it is greater among poorer sections. The reality is that rich and middle-class women are not immune to it.
In India, because this is seen as essentially a problem of the poor, it’s not very high on policy priorities, given the class bias in policymaking. Helplines, shelters and legal assistance for battered women are woefully inadequate at the best of times. It is incredibly hard for women to speak up openly even under the most supportive conditions. With the sudden lockdown, when women find themselves isolated, alone and vulnerable, what are their options? Virtually none.
The first step is for administration and law enforcement agencies to recognise the gravity of the problem, to believe women and to sympathise with them. At this time, more than at any other time, women need solid assurance that they will be heard, and that help would be sent if they fear for their or their children’s lives. Reaching women in distress needs to be classified as an “essential service.”
The police will have to be told in the strictest terms that they have to believe women, regardless of their class, caste or religion. Given the recent instances of violence by the police, this might seem like a big ask, but the powers-that-be need to insist on the right policy response.
Household and care work burden
A lockdown increases the burden of household work for all families. Children are off from school. They have to be home-schooled, fed and entertained. The elderly are at risk and have to be attended to with greater care than usual. In India, the daily lives of middle-class families run on the backs of a slew of service providers: maids, drivers, gardeners, dhobi, garbage collectors, small vendors who bring essential goods right to their doorsteps, and neighbourhood provision stores that have an incredibly efficient home delivery service.
This whole apparatus is now disrupted, as homes with part-time help are confronted with increased housework because the service providers are in lockdown too.
While both men and women are stranded at home, which of the two is dealing with this avalanche of domestic chores and care work disproportionately? In principle, both. In practice, it’s the women, regardless of whether they hold a job (i.e. earn a wage) or not. If they do, then the double burden of domestic chores and their day jobs is now multiplied many times over, because their day job now has a new name: WFH (work from home).
For those of us who might be fortunate enough to be in families that share the burden, it is difficult to imagine the catastrophic effect of this sudden and seemingly indefinite rise in work pressure on the mental and physical health of women.
This is not imaginary fear-mongering. South Asia, particularly India and Pakistan, has one of the highest ratios, globally, of the times spent on unpaid care work by women relative to men, as the chart shows.
The exclusive responsibility of household work or domestic chores on women is one of the key constraints on women’s ability to work outside the home, as my work with Naila Kabeer shows. This crisis has rapidly moved from a health crisis to a full-blown economic recession, as the Indian economy was already tottering when the virus hit. This will mean job losses, with women disproportionately vulnerable to being laid off, making the already declining female labour force participation rate even lower.
For those with secure jobs and a regular salary, a temporary lockdown could be a great way to slow down, rejuvenate and pay attention to their creative side. However, creativity requires not being burdened by the monotony of never-ending domestic chores. The Atlantic reminds us that William Shakespeare and Isaac Newton did some of their best work while England was ravaged by the plague, because none of them had childcare responsibilities.
Stop the spread, share the burden
The question is not “to lockdown or not to lockdown.” The question is: how should we lockdown? What are the checks and balances that need to be in place? Where should the most vulnerable go if they are distressed?
We can take this one step further. If as a result of the lockdown, gender roles within the household revert to the 1950s, flattening the pandemic curve would have flattened all the gains made by women towards equality across the globe. We need to be mindful of how we kill the pandemic, without making women’s equality and mental health collateral damage.
As a first step towards that, we need to recognise and highlight the disproportionate gender impacts of the lockdown. While the state machinery can step in relation to IPV, the intra-household sharing of domestic chores is within the private domain. However, women that are valued for their economic contributions outside the home are also more likely to be respected inside the home.
Once the lockdown ends, employers need to be especially mindful of not laying off their women employees disproportionately. Overall, policies aimed at ensuring gender equality in labour force participation and in wages will go a long way towards paving the way for gender equality inside homes.