Some thoughts from a Covid survivor
Each of us has many identities. Three of mine are retired professor of world politics, feminist scholar, and COVID survivor. This
is a story about putting all three together.
When feminists want to talk about a big picture, in this case world politics, they usually start with a little picture, people’s everyday lives. This is because people get lost when we start with a big picture.
I certainly qualify as a little picture person. For one month, my space was limited to one hospital room. Since then, I’ve graduated to three rooms in my own apartment. I was treated at one of Washington’s best hospitals. It appeared to have plenty of PPE with nurses putting on new gowns whenever they came into my room and discarding them when they left. But from this little space of privilege, I witnessed a microcosm of the world. Almost all the nurses were people of color, many of them male, many from Africa. In Trump’s view, they were mostly people from unmentionable countries. And they were real heroes, cheerful, empathetic, and competent under the worst of circumstances, a COVID Intensive Care Unit.
Since being home, my caregivers are all people of color, mostly African, all women, and all poorly paid. I wonder if more men
went into home healthcare whether conditions would improve? Most of my caregivers are Muslims who pray five times a day; they assure me they pray for me. So, in this tiny space I have inhabited for the last three months, I see the intersection of race, gender, and class playing out before my eyes. I meet some of our essential workers, essential but poorly paid. Will we still appreciate them when this pandemic is over? Does appreciation include supporting a higher minimum wage?
So, let’s move to a bigger picture. The difference in death rates in countries is astounding, not explained by location or access to resources. Canada has done better than the U.S. Some of the countries with the highest death rates, the U.S., the U.K., India, and Brazil, are led by macho men; the tough guy, who is probably the worst kind of leader for our current woes. Bolsonaro, who idolizes Trump, has done very poorly in Brazil. Trump and Modi in India insisted on holding huge rallies with thousands
of people. Trump demonstrated his macho behavior by refusing to wear a mask. Masks are for sissies like Biden, hiding in his basement, refusing to go out and act like a man. Why should mask-wearing, the weapon we need most to fight this pandemic, become such a powerful gendered symbol?
Some of the states that have done the best fighting the pandemic, are led by women: New Zealand, several of the Scandinavian countries, and Iceland. How do we explain this? Could it be that expectations about women, that they are caring and nurturing rather than strong and powerful, are more acceptable in times of disease?
Now to the biggest picture. At the global level I think two factors explain this devastating pandemic. Militarism, and neoliberalism.
Powerful states, like China and the US are equipped to fight wars not pandemics. The world spends $2 trillion annually on
armaments alone. Suppose that were spent on our failing public health systems? We have endless discussions about spending
on health care and social welfare, but the defense budget is never questioned. Projecting power and strength, even states are
expected to act like manly men.
Neoliberalism, an economic theory introduced by Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, has resulted in massive disinvestment in
public goods such as healthcare. This is particularly hard on women who lack childcare while their children stay home from school. What has happened to the discourse of social justice and caring for others?
Can feminism help us make sense of our present predicament? Can it help us see things we might otherwise miss?
Feminist analysis starts with the individual - examining how each of us is placed in this world according to our race, class, gender, and geographical location. If we were to look down from a bird’s eye view, we would miss seeing how real people are coping with this pandemic. We might not notice that over half of COVID vaccinations are going to rich countries. The poorest countries have gotten just 0.1 percent of the vaccines.
So: what are we going to do? We must start thinking in terms of caring rather than fighting. If we live in the geographic North,
we have a much better chance of getting good treatment as did I; we are more likely to have access to vaccines. Almost everyone is worse off economically but it is women, the caregivers, who have suffered the most, maybe set back by a generation.
The World Economic Forum had predicted that it would be 100 years before women reached parity with men. Now they have
added 36 years to their calculation.
But I am hopeful. In the U.S. we have a new administration. In spite of all the ridiculing he got for his mask-wearing and basement hiding, Biden won the election. The shining example for those other macho populist leaders, is gone. Could it be that
this pandemic has taught us something? To value caregiving over war fighting?