Feminist strategies for post-COVID recovery
By Kirthi Jayakumar
Well before the end of the pandemic was in sight, there was global conversation on the post-pandemic era, with talk about wanting to ‘build back better’. What the pandemic continues to show us in the form of the rampant discrimination that structural and systemic violence has normalised was conspicuous by its absence in discussions at the policy level. From migrant crises to vaccine apartheid, from systemic racism to the rise in gender-based violence under lockdowns, the pandemic blew open the covers on everything that is wrong with the world order that brought us here.
Any attempt at global recovery would fail if it were only centred on building back together. A complex mix of colonialism, patriarchy, racism, capitalism, and structural and systemic violence have culminated in a socio-politico-economic world order that privileged few at the cost of an oppressed many. Building back a system that has already proved its many failings is to reaffirm a recipe for inequity, disaster, and violence, rather than recovery of any kind. If we must recover, we must build forward better, rather than build back better.
In centring the goal of recovery, determining who gets to be in charge of whose recovery is fundamental. The post-colonial world order led to the creation of a different form of the same concentration of power: where the systemic and structural barriers created evident divides where the rich got richer, the poor poorer – and the chasm widened significantly over time. The privileged few sailed through the most devastating troughs of the pandemic: and arguably not worse for the wear. The ones that were already on the peripheries of the system – marginalised on one or several grounds – bore the brunt of the pandemic. Even as lockdowns were announced, whole swathes of small businesses and daily-wage workers were wiped out worldwide. Women and non-binary people were forced indoors alongside perpetrators of abuse and violence with no end in sight. Migrant labour made arduous journeys back home on foot – braving hunger, the weather, the raging pandemic – with some not even making it.
Any attempt at recovery must not only acknowledge and address these impacts, but also go to the very roots of all that led to them in the first place. Band-aid legislations, superficial remedies, and ignoring these events altogether will prevent any recovery from being wholesome. Centring the communities in recovery is fundamental to any sustainable vision of healing and growth in the future.
Impact over intent
Building forward must be specifically aimed at supporting individual communities in their healing and recovery arcs. The setback caused by the pandemic is at best an umbrella: with more setbacks standing out in the rain than sheltered at the heart of it. Policy measures – be it economic, social, political, or financial – must speak to the needs of the communities they are aimed at. To this end, it hardly helps if there is a disconnect between the ones making these policies and the ones for whom they are made: for solutions that are inward-facing from outside are no more than mere impositions that do not translate into results of a meaningful nature. Each community knows best where the shoe pinches and what it takes to heal from the harm and the setback: to this end, involving every community in articulating and framing their needs and playing an active part in shaping solutions that respond to those very needs is essential.
The best of the world’s policy measures may appear to deliver in a bell jar, but simply not hold when tested out under the sun. Recovery efforts and policies must strive to deliver the impact they are created for, rather than merely service an intent that may or may not, or may only inadequately translate on the ground.
Deploying a peace and intersectional feminist lens
At the root of all overt violence lie structural and cultural violence and histories of trauma that may either be kept alive through existing forms of structural and cultural violence, or weaponised to forge new ones. A peace lens offers room to acknowledge these roots, to engage deeply with them, and to transform conflict toward sustainable peace rooted in justice. In so doing, it would pave the way to not only ensure that everyone is given their due: but that due is not snatched from their hands through systemic sanction. An intersectional feminist lens offers room to acknowledge the many unique lived experiences that have different experiences of the same, overarching, global system: especially those that are characterised by oppression and deprivation. It offers a route to acknowledge that the starting lines differ from person to person, that unique lived experiences need systemic empathy and compassion as a response, and that no measures toward rebuilding a future are possible if even one life is left behind.