Covid-19: The centrality and invisibility of women
Six days before Kerala recorded its first coronavirus case on January 30, health minister KK Shailaja made plans. She was following the news from Wuhan, China, where many students from the state were studying, and the minister knew there was no room for complacency.
The state’s international airports began screening, a control room was set up, and contact tracing and testing started. By early February, Kerala had shut down public events, movie halls, and schools. Children would get midday meals at home and community kitchens were set up in villages and municipal areas.
On March 24, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a nationwide lockdown, Kerala had 104 confirmed cases, roughly a fifth of the 564 in India. By April 15, only 3.38% or 387 cases of 11,439 cases in India were from Kerala. There have been three deaths so far.
To give sole credit to Shailaja for the state’s containment of the virus would be an exaggeration. Kerala’s health care system and its high ranking on human development indices such as literacy and nutritional status give it an edge.
As the world battles the pandemic, it cannot be a coincidence that countries headed by women — Taiwan, Germany, New Zealand — are doing comparatively well. In Taiwan, President Tsai Ing-Wen’s early intervention, including screening passengers from Wuhan, limited the outbreak to 393 infections and six deaths.
Angela Merkel’s Germany has witnessed a high rate of infections, but relatively low deaths. And New Zealand’s Jacinda Arden’s insistence on a four-week lockdown has resulted in 1,300 cases and nine deaths. Four Nordic countries, Denmark, Norway, Finland and Iceland, all led by women, have done well in containing the virus, writes academic Leta Hong Fincher for CNN.
This is not to suggest that women possess inherent qualities that make them better crisis managers. But with low representation in public life, women often have to be better than men to make it to the table in the first place. The disease impacts everyone but gender inequities that existed before the pandemic have now been “exacerbated”, says a United Nations Women report on the first 100 days of the pandemic. Worldwide, 70% of health care staff is women — often in jobs that are underpaid and overworked. In some Indian districts, accredited social health activists and anganwadi workers are going door-to-door to provide nutrition.
It is women who now deal with the additional burden of care work. It is women who face job losses in sectors where they are overrepresented: Tourism, textile and garments, and the informal economy. And it is women who face a surge in domestic violence under the extended lockdown.
No decision-making can be complete without hearing their voices. Yet, on April 13, Niti Aayog tweeted a photo of a video interaction with the Confederation of Indian Industry representatives to discuss a strategy that would focus on lives and livelihoods. All of them were men.