May 21, 2020
We need a new social and gender pact that addresses inequality
Women are at the frontlines of the battle against COVID-19 in Canada
AROUND THE WORLD, citizens are calling for change because COVID-19 has laid bare the dangers of inequality. For women, the risks are diverse and harsh. This is the moment for a new social and gender pact.
Over the past several decades, the slashing of social programs and services in western democracies in the name of austerity and deficit-slaying has permitted social and economic inequality to thrive. COVID-19 has confronted us starkly with the result: the risk of death and disease falls unevenly across the population.
The frail elderly, disabled persons, prisoners, the homeless in shelters and camps, and Indigenous people in northern and remote communities – those we have institutionalized, or left without homes, those we have impoverished and marginalized—are most at risk.
COVID-19 has also made us recognize that increased risk for some is a threat to us all; we are more dependent on each other than we thought.
The good news in this time of pandemic is that governments have shown they can act when necessary. The best have done so quickly and effectively, addressing social inequalities to protect everyone’s health and safety. Canada’s willingness to spend billions of dollars to support its residents is crucial for social solidarity and well-being.
But now what? Do we just go back to the “normal” of inequality and wait for the next crisis? Not a chance.
A fundamental lesson of COVID-19 has been that social justice is a threshold requirement for a resilient and sustainable society. We cannot return to the status quo of inequality when its dangers for everyone are now so obvious. As we learned from the 2008 financial collapse, we also can’t leave the planning to those who favour the markets-before-people policies that created the problems in the first place.
If we view moving beyond this health emergency as a narrow exercise in getting businesses open again, we will miss a transformative opportunity. This is not about patching up the largest holes in Canada’s tattered social safety net. What we need is a new economic and social model, one that works for everyone, placing human rights, social justice and gender equality at the centre.
Key to making an effective recovery is addressing the gender inequality that the COVID-19 crisis has thrown into stark relief.
Women have been disproportionately and harshly affected. They are the majority of the frontline essential workers in health care, social welfare and retail services; many of them are racialized or immigrant women. They are at risk at work, where they’re essential to maintaining the lives of others, and yet they’re among the lowest paid workers in our economy.
Women are also most at risk of being out of work, as recent unemployment figures show, and they can’t return to work without adequate, affordable childcare. They’re also at risk from male violence in their homes, and on the streets, with their means of escaping violence reduced by isolation requirements and by lost income.
To build a resilient society we need to deliver income security, provide adequate housing for everyone and make child care an essential service. We must eliminate discrimination in pay and conditions of work, increase the capacities of our health care and elder care systems, and make real progress on climate change.
We must also address the systemic issue of male violence against women, treat the people whom we convict of crimes fairly and humanely, and start respecting the rights of Indigenous peoples to land, clean water, and healthy lives.
The Secretary-General of the United Nations, António Gutteres, and the Inter-American Commission of Women have both issued reports recently recognizing the impact of COVID-19 on women around the world and urging states to ensure that recovery plans are feminist and that women are equal partners in decision-making.
The response of the nay-sayers to these calls for government action to tackle inequality are predictable. They will cite the need for austerity, seed panic over deficit and debt levels, claim that government is the enemy and must be kept small. But Canadians now know otherwise: this is a time for public entrepreneurship and investment in people and services.
This is a time for governments to think big about a people-centre and women-centred economy and to engaged in a major assault on inequality and poverty. There can be no going back to ‘normal.’
Shelagh Day is the Chair of the Human Rights Committee of the Canadian Feminist Alliance for International Action, a human rights expert and a Member of the Order of Canada.