When COVID-19 triggered orders for social distancing and regular handwashing, we immediately started hearing of the disproportionate risk facing people who had no home to go to, or whose homes are not safe; those with no clean water with which to wash their hands; and those living in crowded housing or institutions. The idea that “we are all in the same storm, but we are not in the same boat” draws attention to how this public health crisis impacts certain people and communities.
A wave of articles from feminist economists, academics, and activists shows that none of this is really surprising. In fact, we have been warned of these risks and pre-existing crises for decades or more. We know that poverty, housing insecurity, and food insecurity are in and of themselves public health crises and that they impact certain groups of people more than others. Unfortunately, our knowledge has not been paired with commensurate action.
While many consider these issues to be a question of charity, this alone does not fully explain our lack of ambition. Demonstrations of incredible empathy, compassion, and generosity have often lifted our spirits during this time of pandemic. Governments have rolled out new emergency benefits and enacted policy changes. The Prime Minister said that no one should have to worry about paying for food or rent because of COVID-19.
But why is it seen as acceptable—unavoidable, even—that people are unable to meet even the most basic needs when our economy is in full swing? And what are we to do about it?
To answer these questions, we need to better understand who is most affected by these crises and who has the decision-making power. This requires an intersectional gender-based analysis. We need to understand how diverse women and gender nonconforming people’s experiences are shaped by combined factors such as Indigenous identity, race, gender identity and expression, sexual orientation, ability, age, amount and source of income, immigration status or lack thereof, and other equity grounds.
The Ontario Health Coalition reports that more women than men are dying of COVID-19 in Canada. This is, in part, because there is a higher proportion of elderly women in long-term care homes. Also, racialized and immigrant women are more likely to be employed in care work with greater exposure to the virus. A high proportion of people working in the food supply and other essential services are racialized, immigrant, Indigenous women, and/or women with disabilities. They are paid some of the lowest wages with little or no access to benefits. This often leaves them ineligible for employment insurance and the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit.
For parents, the closure of schools and daycares is also disproportionately affecting women. They traditionally take on greater responsibility for child care and other unpaid labour in the home. This is exacerbated by gendered and racialized wage gaps and the lack of accessible, affordable childcare. As a result, more women than men leave work in order to take on child care responsibilities.
Gendered and racialized wage and employment disparities combined with the costs of raising children make women particularly vulnerable to poverty, especially in female-led lone parent families. This in turn makes women more vulnerable to intimate partner violence and exploitation. Recommendations to shelter in place and practice social distancing exacerbate this risk, as many women and children have nowhere to seek safety. Even for those not facing violence, disturbing reports of landlords soliciting sex for rent have increased during the pandemic.
Unfortunately, merely lifting the restrictions of social distancing and going back to business as usual won’t hold the same promise of recovery for all people. Labour Force Survey data released in May show that as the economy starts to re-open, men are going back to work at more than double the rate that women are, further contributing to gender employment gaps. Whether we are talking about eradicating COVID-19 or eradicating poverty, we need robust disaggregated data and community consultation to inform distinctions-based targets, strategies, and accountability mechanisms.
Ending gender and intersectional inequity is essential to ending poverty. Ending poverty is essential to individual and public health. We must leverage our existing knowledge and lessons learned during this pandemic to build a more equitable, sustainable, and resilient future for all.
This summer, we are pleased to welcome Campaign 2000 as an official co-lead of the Dignity for All Campaign. We look forward to building on our long history of collaboration as we work together for our shared goals of poverty eradication and equity for all people in Canada.