“Covid has unleashed the most severe setback to women’s liberation in my lifetime. While watching this happen, I have started to think we are witnessing an outbreak of disaster patriarchy.
Naomi Klein was the first to identify “disaster capitalism”, when capitalists use a disaster to impose measures they couldn’t possibly get away with in normal times, generating more profit for themselves. Disaster patriarchy is a parallel and complementary process, where men exploit a crisis to reassert control and dominance, and rapidly erase hard-earned women’s rights. (The term “racialized disaster patriarchy” was used by Rachel E Luft in writing about an intersectional model for understanding disaster 10 years after Hurricane Katrina.) All over the world, patriarchy has taken full advantage of the virus to reclaim power – on the one hand, escalating the danger and violence to women, and on the other, stepping in as their supposed controller and protector.
I have spent months interviewing activists and grassroots leaders around the world, from Kenya to France to India, to find out how this process is affecting them, and how they are fighting back. In very different contexts, five key factors come up again and again. In disaster patriarchy, women lose their safety, their economic power, their autonomy, their education, and they are pushed on to the frontlines, unprotected, to be sacrificed.
Part of me hesitates to use the word “patriarchy”, because some people feel confused by it, and others feel it’s archaic. I have tried to imagine a newer, more contemporary phrase for it, but I have watched how we keep changing language, updating and modernising our descriptions in an attempt to meet the horror of the moment. I think, for example, of all the names we have given to the act of women being beaten by their partner. First, it was battery, then domestic violence, then intimate partner violence, and most recently intimate terrorism. We are forever doing the painstaking work of refining and illuminating, rather than insisting the patriarchs work harder to deepen their understanding of a system that is eviscerating the planet. So, I’m sticking with the word.
In this devastating time of Covid we have seen an explosion of violence towards women, whether they are cisgender or gender-diverse. Intimate terrorism in lockdown has turned the home into a kind of torture chamber for millions of women. We have seen the spread of revenge porn as lockdown has pushed the world online; such digital sexual abuse is now central to domestic violence as intimate partners threaten to share sexually explicit images without victims’ consent.
The conditions of lockdown – confinement, economic insecurity, fear of illness, excess of alcohol – were a perfect storm for abuse. It is hard to determine what is more disturbing: the fact that in 2021 thousands of men still feel willing and entitled to control, torture and beat their wives, girlfriends and children, or that no government appears to have thought about this in their planning for lockdown.
In Peru, hundreds of women and girls have gone missing since lockdown was imposed, and are feared dead. According to official figures reported by Al Jazeera, 606 girls and 309 women went missing between 16 March and 30 June last year. Worldwide, the closure of schools has increased the likelihood of various forms of violence. The US Rape Abuse and Incest National Network says its helpline for survivors of sexual assault has never been in such demand in its 26-year history, as children are locked in with abusers with no ability to alert their teachers or friends. In Italy, calls to the national anti-violence toll-free number increased by 73% between 1 March and 16 April 2020, according to the activist Luisa Rizzitelli. In Mexico, emergency call handlers received the highest number of calls in the country’s history, and the number of women who sought domestic violence shelters quadrupled.
To add outrage to outrage, many governments reduced funding for these shelters at the exact moment they were most needed. This seems to be true throughout Europe. In the UK, providers told Human Rights Watch that the Covid-19 crisis has exacerbated a lack of access to services for migrant and Black, Asian and minority ethnic women. The organisations working with these communities say that persistent inequality leads to additional difficulties in accessing services such as education, healthcare and disaster relief remotely.
In the US, more than 5 million women’s jobs were lost between the start of the pandemic and November 2020. Because much of women’s work requires physical contact with the public – restaurants, stores, childcare, healthcare settings – theirs were some of the first to go. Those who were able to keep their jobs were often frontline workers whose positions have put them in great danger; some 77% of hospital workers and 74% percent of school staff are women. Even then, the lack of childcare options left many women unable to return to their jobs. Having children does not have this effect for men. The rate of unemployment for Black and Latina women was higher before the virus, and now it is even worse.
The situation is more severe for women in other parts of the world. Shabnam Hashmi, a leading women’s activist from India, tells me that by April 2020 a staggering 39.5% of women there had lost their jobs. “Work from home is very taxing on women as their personal space has disappeared, and workload increased threefold,” Hashmi says. In Italy, existing inequalities have been amplified by the health emergency. Rizzitelli points out that women already face lower employment, poorer salaries and more precarious contracts, and are rarely employed in “safe” corporate roles; they have been the first to suffer the effects of the crisis. “Pre-existing economic, social, racial and gender inequalities have been accentuated, and all of this risks having longer-term consequences than the virus itself,” Rizzitelli says.
When women are put under greater financial pressure, their rights rapidly erode. With the economic crisis created by Covid, sex- and labour-trafficking are again on the rise. Young women who struggle to pay their rent are being preyed on by landlords, in a process known as “sextortion”.
I don’t think we can overstate the level of exhaustion, anxiety and fear that women are suffering from taking care of families, with no break or time for themselves. It’s a subtle form of madness. As women take care of the sick, the needy and the dying, who takes care of them? Colani Hlatjwako, an activist leader from the Kingdom of Eswatini, sums it up: “Social norms that put a heavy caregiving burden on women and girls remain likely to make their physical and mental health suffer.” These structures also impede access to education, damage livelihoods, and strip away sources of support.
Unesco estimates that upward of 11 million girls may not return to school once the Covid pandemic subsides. The Malala Fund estimates an even bigger number: 20 million. Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, from UN Women, says her organisation has been fighting for girls’ education since the Beijing UN women’s summit in 1995. “Girls make up the majority of the schoolchildren who are not going back,” she says. “We had been making progress – not perfect, but we were keeping them at school for longer. And now, to have these girls just dropping out in one year, is quite devastating.”
Of all these setbacks, this will be the most significant. When girls are educated, they know their rights, and what to demand. They have the possibility of getting jobs and taking care of their families. When they can’t access education, they become a financial strain to their families and are often forced into early marriages.
This has particular implications for female genital mutilation (FGM). Often, fathers will accept not subjecting their daughters to this process because their daughters can become breadwinners through being educated. If there is no education, then the traditional practices resume, so that daughters can be sold for dowries. As Agnes Pareyio, chairwoman of the Kenyan Anti-Female Genital Mutilation Board, tells me: “Covid closed our schools and brought our girls back home. No one knew what was going on in the houses. We know that if you educate a girl, FGM will not happen. And now, sadly the reverse is true.”
In the early months of the pandemic, I had a front-row seat to the situation of nurses in the US, most of whom are women. I worked with National Nurses United, the biggest and most radical nurses’ union, and interviewed many nurses working on the frontline. I watched as for months they worked gruelling 12-hour shifts filled with agonising choices and trauma, acting as midwives to death. On their short lunch breaks, they had to protest over their own lack of personal protective equipment, which put them in even greater danger. In the same way that no one thought what it would mean to lock women and children in houses with abusers, no one thought what it would be like to send nurses into an extremely contagious pandemic without proper PPE. In some US hospitals, nurses were wearing garbage bags instead of gowns, and reusing single-use masks many times. They were being forced to stay on the job even if they had fevers.
The treatment of nurses who were risking their lives to save ours was a shocking kind of violence and disrespect. But there are many other areas of work where women have been left unprotected, from the warehouse workers who are packing and shipping our goods, to women who work in poultry and meat plants who are crammed together in dangerous proximity and forced to stay on the job even when they are sick. One of the more stunning developments has been with “tipped” restaurant workers in the US, already allowed to be paid the shockingly low wage of $2.13 (£1.50) an hour, which has remained the same for the past 22 years. Not only has work declined, tips have also declined greatly for those women, and now a new degradation called “maskular harassment” has emerged, where male customers insist waitresses take off their masks so they can determine if and how much to tip them based on their looks.
Women farm workers in the US have seen their protections diminished while no one was looking. Mily Treviño-Sauceda, executive director of Alianza Nacional de Campesinas, tells me how pressures have increased on campesinas, or female farm workers: “There have been more incidents of pesticides poisonings, sexual abuse and heat stress issues, and there is less monitoring from governmental agencies or law enforcement due to Covid-19.”
Covid has revealed the fact that we live with two incompatible ideas when it comes to women. The first is that women are essential to every aspect of life and our survival as a species. The second is that women can easily be violated, sacrificed and erased. This is the duality that patriarchy has slashed into the fabric of existence, and that Covid has laid bare. If we are to continue as a species, this contradiction needs to be healed and made whole.
To be clear, the problem is not the lockdowns, but what the lockdowns, and the pandemic that required them, have made clear. Covid has revealed that patriarchy is alive and well; that it will reassert itself in times of crisis because it has never been truly deconstructed, and like an untreated virus it will return with a vengeance when the conditions are ripe.
The truth is that unless the culture changes, unless patriarchy is dismantled, we will forever be spinning our wheels. Coming out of Covid, we need to be bold, daring, outrageous and to imagine a more radical way of existing on the Earth. We need to continue to build and spread activist movements. We need progressive grassroots women and women of colour in positions of power. We need a global initiative on the scale of a Marshall Plan or larger, to deconstruct and exorcise patriarchy – which is the root of so many other forms of oppression, from imperialism to racism, from transphobia to the denigration of the Earth.
There would first be a public acknowledgment, and education, about the nature of patriarchy and an understanding that it is driving us to our end. There would be ongoing education, public forums and processes studying how patriarchy leads to various forms of oppression. Art would help expunge trauma, grief, aggression, sorrow and anger in the culture and help heal and make people whole. We would understand that a culture that has diabolical amnesia and refuses to address its past can only repeat its misfortunes and abuses. Community and religious centres would help members deal with trauma. We would study the high arts of listening and empathy. Reparations and apologies would be done in public forums and in private meetings. Learning the art of apology would be as important as prayer.
The feminist author Gerda Lerner wrote in 1986: “The system of patriarchy in a historic construct has a beginning and it will have an end. Its time seems to have nearly run its course. It no longer serves the needs of men and women, and its intractable linkage to militarism, hierarchy and racism has threatened the very existence of life on Earth.”
As powerful as patriarchy is, it’s just a story. As the post-pandemic era unfolds, can we imagine another system, one that is not based on hierarchy, violence, domination, colonialisation and occupation? Do we see the connection between the devaluing, harming and oppression of all women and the destruction of the Earth itself? What if we lived as if we were kin? What if we treated each person as sacred and essential to the unfolding story of humanity?
What if rather than exploiting, dominating and hurting women and girls during a crisis, we designed a world that valued them, educated them, paid them, listened to them, cared for them and centred them?“
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Why So Much Wealth at the Top Threatens the US Economy
Policymakers and the media are paying too much attention to how quickly the U.S. economy will emerge from the pandemic-induced recession, and not nearly enough to the nation’s deeper structural problem -- the increasing imbalance of wealth that could enfeeble the economy for years.
Seventy percent of the US economy depends on consumer spending. But wealthy people, who now own more of the economy than at any time since the 1920s, spend only a small percentage of their incomes. Lower-income people, who were in trouble even before the pandemic, spend whatever they have -- which has become very little.
In a very practical sense, the U.S. economy depends on the spending of most Americans who don’t have much to spend. That spells trouble ahead.
It’s not simply a matter of an adequate “stimulus.” The $2,000 checks contained in the American Rescue Plan have already been distributed and extra unemployment benefits will soon expire. Consumer spending will be propped up as employers add to their payrolls. Biden’s spending plans, if enacted, will also help keep consumers afloat for a time.
But the underlying imbalance will remain. Most peoples’ wages will still be too low and too much of the economy’s gains will continue to accumulate at the top, for total consumer demand to be adequate.
Years ago, Marriner Eccles, chairman of the Federal Reserve from 1934 to 1948, explained that the Great Depression occurred because the buying power of Americans fell far short of what the economy could produce. He blamed the increasing concentration of wealth at the top. In his words:
“A giant suction pump had by 1929-1930 drawn into a few hands an increasing portion of currently produced wealth. As in a poker game where the chips were concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, the other fellows could stay in the game only by borrowing. When their credit ran out, the game stopped.”
The wealthy of the 1920s didn’t know what to do with all their money, while most Americans could maintain their standard of living only by going into debt. When that debt bubble burst, the economy sunk.
History is repeating itself. The typical Americans’ wages have hardly increased for decades, adjusted for inflation. Most economic gains have gone to the top, just as Eccles’s “giant suction pump” drew an increasing portion of the nation’s wealth into a few hands before the Great Depression.
The result has been consumer spending financed by borrowing, creating chronic fragility. After the housing and financial bubbles burst in 2008, we avoided another Great Depression only because the government pumped enough money into the system to maintain demand, and the Fed kept interest rates near zero. Then came the pandemic.
The wealth imbalance is now more extreme than it’s been in over a century. There’s so much wealth at the top that the prices of luxury items of all kinds are soaring; so-called “non-fungible tokens,” ranging from art and music to tacos and toilet paper, are selling like 17th-century exotic Dutch tulips; cryptocurrencies have taken off; and stock market values have continued to rise even through the pandemic.
Corporations don’t know what to do with all their cash. Trillions of dollars are sitting idle on their balance sheets. The biggest firms have been feasting off the Fed’s corporate welfare, as the central bank obligingly holds corporate bonds that the firms issued before the recession in order finance stock buybacks.
But most people have few if any assets. Even by 2018, when the economy appeared strong, 40% of Americans had negative net incomes and were borrowing money to pay for basic household needs.
The heart of the imbalance is America’s wealthy and the corporations they own have huge bargaining power -- both market power in the form of monopolies, and political power in the form of lobbyists and campaign contributions.
Most workers have little or no bargaining power -- neither inside their firms because of the near-disappearance of labor unions, nor in politics because political parties have devolved from giant membership organizations to fundraising machines.
Biden’s “stimulus” programs are fine but temporary. The most important economic reform would be to correct this structural imbalance by reducing monopoly power, strengthening unions, and getting big money out of politics.
Until the structural imbalance is remedied, the American economy will remain perilously fragile. It will also be vulnerable to the next demagogue wielding anger and resentment as substitutes for real reform.
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