Women & COVID-19

How to occupy a plurality of positions at the same time in the context of a pandemic.

The COVID-19 crisis had revealed a great deal to us in terms of the positioning of women in society. If there is something the crisis has taught us, it is that women hold a multitude of positions all at once:  they are simultaneously first, last and at the margins.

You might say: “But it’s not possible to be in all of these places at the same time!” Indeed, it is. Here is how.

Women: First

Women were the first to be thrown into the lion’s den. They were front-line workers in the health, social services, and community sectors. These “guardian angels” were not only more affected by the crisis both in terms of rates of infection and economic or financial consequences, but they were also the first to suffer from an additional workload during the confinement period, having to manage the burden of working from home while bearing the brunt of their children’s education due to closure of businesses, schools and more. Far too often have women been expected to take on the roles of homemaker, educator and/or caregiver, in addition to having to meet their employers’ demands. This is nothing new; women are always the first to suffer from a double mental load and invisible work.

Additionally, women were also “first” in the realm of conjugal and intimate partner violence. Quebec experienced an upsurge of cases within the first weeks of confinement. As we know, the strong majority of conjugal and intimate partner violence victims and survivors are women.

Finally, in addition to holding historically undervalued and underpaid jobs—although they were deemed essential in the context of the pandemic—women were also the first to fall into a position of financial vulnerability.

Truthfully, women at the frontline were not the only ones to have suffered in the ‘battlefield’ of this pandemic. There were also the women who were forgotten at the societal margins.

Women: at the margins

Among the women who were “first”, there were also those who experienced double (or more) marginalization. Black, racialized and immigrant women who were already experiencing inequalities in terms of employment and salaries, saw these inequalities being exacerbated during the crisis. Amongst them, more than one in five Indigenous women experienced physical or psychological violence during the confinement period. They were also more likely to experience psychological distress and more likely to contract the virus.

Women in precarious situations or living on social assistance were also at greater risk of contagion and were experiencing increased financial pressures during the pandemic due to reduced accessibility to basic goods and services.

Additionally, while most job losses were suffered by women, they were also excluded from the government’s economic recovery plan.

Sex workers, on the other hand, had all sources of income completely cut off in the wake of the declaration of the state of emergency. Most of them had no access to any of the governments’ emergency aid programs, forcing some to put their lives at risk, if only to meet the basic needs of themselves and their families.

Women: last

The pandemic has also shown us that women are still, too often, put last. There are those who were the last to be recognized as full citizens, in spite of their crucial contributions to our society, such as non-status women.

Women were also last to be prioritized by the powers that be, such as the Minister responsible for the Status of Women. Some of them were the “last” to benefit from their rights to basic security as some women’s shelters failed received the desperately needed funding that was promised to them by the government.

If we, the Centre des femmes solidaires et engagées, are writing this piece, it is to shed light on the systemic inequalities that all women face. It is to remind governments, elected officials, researchers, community organizations, and more, that women were most adversely affected by the pandemic and that they must, therefore, be placed front and centre in any type of analysis of this pandemic, be it research or ground work. Undertaking the latter from a lens other than an intersectional feminist one equates to putting women last. It is a failure to properly diagnose, assess and treat the issue at hand.

On the flip side, if we are writing this post, it is also out of hope that women will eventually hold a central place in society—one that is truly reflective of their value as human beings.

Women at the centre

While proposed solutions are plenty and have been claimed for a very long time, the current crisis has brought the endless list of societal disparities between men and women—and between women—to light. Some women were first, some were at the margins, and others were last. Some of them held all these positions simultaneously. Women being placed at the centre, however, is what we are demanding. That they may hold a central, empowered, and egalitarian position to their male counterparts. And that all women hold an equal position amongst themselves, as well. For once and for all.