Responding to the pandemic: A Gender Lens
Image: Reuters/Dinuka Liyanawatte
By Kirthi Jayakumar
No one can be prepared enough to handle a global disaster, be that an asteroid crashing into the planet or a pandemic cruising unseen across borders. Be that as it may, contingency planning to address a variety of eventualities remain significant components of global policymaking. The drawback, however, is most such plans are a product of patriarchy – much like most policies, laws, and plans are. In disaster-free times, inequalities remain conspicuous in our social, political, economic, and cultural interactions. In times of disaster, the breakdown of the security sector and rights-protection machinery provide an enabling environment for the exacerbation of these inequalities. This is doubly aggravated by inadequate policy measures and plans to respond to the unique needs of those affected especially by such inequalities.
From the migrant crisis to women facing heightened levels of domestic violence, from visually impaired persons navigating a new reality where touching surfaces means making one vulnerable to a threatening disease to non-binary persons facing violence in while living with homonegative and transnegative families, there are glaring gaps in policy measures. A cursory search on the Internet will throw up statistics from every corner of the world, attesting to the rise in domestic, gender-based, and sexual violence targeting women and non-binary persons – especially those among them with additional vulnerabilities on the grounds of caste, race, class, religion, and colour. A study of the world’s policy measures in response to these challenges will bring a few interesting things to light: that women-led nations appear to be doing better at addressing not only the pandemic but these allied changes.
Admittedly true, there are enough data and anecdotal evidence to back this up. Jacinda Ardern, Sanna Marin, Angela Merkel, Tsai Ing-wen, and Shailaja Teacher are among the few women on the frontlines, successfully addressing the pandemic and all the many challenges it has brought in its wake. Forbes Magazine took a deep dive into the “science” behind the success of women leaders in addressing COVID – reducing women leaders to an object of experimentation and scientific inquiry, seemingly studying the “phenomenon” as though it were a strange anomaly. Essentialist arguments have been presented, desperately trying to explain women’s leadership as a function of inherent capacity for nurture, motherhood, predisposition to empathy, and a sense of inherent gentleness and compassion. There are tall claims of women being inherently capable of keeping house, of “managing a whole household on a shoestring budget,” and of being risk averse. The last time I checked, science can neither tell you the why of gender nor can it give you a fool-proof formula for how gender is and is done – a woman’s predisposition to leadership is not tied to her self-determined gender or any part of her anatomy. Therefore, these essentialist arguments are limiting and fallacious at best.
Where Shailaja Teacher took the disease seriously enough well ahead, Jacinda Ardern and her team took a pay-cut to help a devastated economy onto its feet. Angela Merkel’s strict controls led to an earlier containment and speedier opening up of the economy, while Tsai Ing-wen doubled down with tracking and testing right from the inception. Each of these women are intensely different from the other: no formula can reduce them to a lump of flesh predisposed to “nurturing attributes” ascribed to a homogeneous idea of women.
In this context that what the women leaders in these chaotic times have done takes a massive detour from essentialism, and affirms a detour from structural violence, as well. Their success, rather, is because they chose not to follow a patriarchal structural route: they chose approaches and actions that centred on the larger goal: the vision of a future that is built on addressing the immediate traumas, adverse impacts, and harm each one faces, unique to their circumstances and challenges.
It is the absence of this vision, this dedication to inclusion that has culminated in the failure of patriarchally-led approaches to the pandemic. In a nation that is tremendously diverse, densely populated, and fraught with inequalities a Western world strategy of locking down sparked a major migrant crisis. In as diverse a nation with wealth, a leader desperately denying the need to test enough so that there wouldn’t be any cases to report, the largest number of infections were reported. Several other leaders have been busy using the pandemic as a cover to pursue militaristic and/or self-serving agendas to secure their leadership positions. A patriarchal formula for leadership has predisposed us to assume – and therefore enact – systems and structures that ask women to “become like men” to occupy positions of leadership, or to “be women” and be reduced to “doing” particular kinds of leadership. This has to change.