Back in the 1970s, a feisty New Zealand legislator named Marilyn Waring made headlines around the world. Her election campaigns were magnets for energetic local volunteers in a mostly rural agricultural constituency. Who were the volunteers? Primarily women who devoted long hours to caring for children, tending vegetable plots, managing sheep and dairy operations, and preparing meals for relatives, friends, and farm employees.
Waring was outraged that calculations of New Zealand’s gross domestic product (GDP) did not consider the extensive political, social and economic contributions of female workers in her area – because their labour was unpaid. She quit politics to study the valuation or, more accurately, devaluation of women in global accounting systems.
In 1988, Waring published a groundbreaking book called If Women Counted. It showed how postwar efforts to measure economic growth reflected what a group of predominantly white, privileged men in the 1940s chose to value. Her study demonstrated the degree to which standard national and international accounting systems rendered invisible any work that fell outside formal, currency-based transactions. By adopting gauges such as GDP, she argued, the United Nations and its member states effectively discounted half the Earth’s population.
With full credit to Waring’s feminist economics as well as the poetry of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, it’s worth counting the ways this pandemic has inflicted additional discounts on women as a group.
First are data indicating heightened threats of emotional and physical abuse. During the lock-down in China, neighbours said they heard more frequent and more violent interactions than usual in their buildings. Calls to domestic violence hotlines have risen markedly in multiple countries facing the COVID-19 threat including Canada, France, Spain and the UK. Publicly available information shows surging sales of items that directly endanger the lives of adults and children shuttered at home with minimal opportunities to leave. The North American trade in guns, ammunition and liquor, for instance, has spiked since controls were imposed to limit the spread of the virus. Yet little public or governmental attention has been directed toward the specific gender consequences of a social lockdown.
Second, expert predictions said COVID-19 posed severe risks for frail seniors. Who are they? Overwhelmingly women, since the Canadian population over the age of 85 contains roughly two women for every man. Major outbreaks at long-term care homes across the country confirm exactly what was expected, which is that the elderly – most of whom are women – would face markedly higher rates of infection than the general population. In recent days, two large provinces have called in Canada’s military in order to deal with a serious breakdown in supports for seniors.
Levels of COVID-19 infection among personal support workers in homes for seniors reveal an unfortunate fact.
Third, who cares in normal times for our elderly? Often, it’s immigrant and visible-minority women based at facilities that offer limited job security, wages, benefits and sick days. Levels of COVID-19 infection among personal support workers in homes for seniors reveal an unfortunate fact. As a society, we have entrusted care for elderly women to working-age women with meagre importance.
Fourth, what can be done to reduce the spread of COVID-19 among seniors? Experts recommend relatives make room in their own residences for loved ones who are now in institutional care. Who is likely to pick up the slack at home following these moves? According to Statistics Canada data, it’s overwhelmingly women who do the bulk of family care work as mothers, wives and daughters.
Fifth, who at the top takes the heat for official responses to the crisis? It’s Dr. Theresa Tam, a physician born in Hong Kong, educated in the UK and Canada, who serves as Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer. Alberta Premier Jason Kenney lashed out at Tam for what he claimed was overly slow regulatory approval of test kits, vaccines and medications. He condemned Tam’s advice from early 2020 to permit travel from regions hit hard by the virus, claiming Tam “was repeating talking points” from China.
Counting this toll constitutes a crucial political act. Whether we highlight domestic abuse, frailty in old age, precarious work, caring pressures or personalized criticism faced by women in all their diversity, the upshot is clear: COVID-19 offers an opportune moment to reject the discounts and revalue the experiences and contributions of half the population.
This article is part of the The Coronavirus Pandemic: Canada’s Response special feature.