10 July 2020 05:42 AM

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SUCHITRA | 25 APRIL, 2020

COVID19 and Women Leaders: The Gendered Response We Deserve

ASHA workers still not paid


The nascent trends of the pandemic show that from New Zealand to the district of Bhilwara in Rajasthan, women have globally been doing a better job than men. Women have outperformed themselves in dealing with one of the greatest planetary crises in living memory.

Women heads of state in countries including New Zealand, Taiwan and Norway have outperformed global superpowers like the United States, Italy, and China in the fight against COVID19. They have initiated a paradigm shift from the status quo, and this demands another look at the global gender divide.

Women are often called weak, and incapable of leading institutions large or small. Two women from India, Tina Dabi and Dr Minal Dakhave Bhosale, shows the extreme focus with which they have served their cause: medicine, and people.

Hours before going into a C-section surgery, Minal Dakhave Bhosale led the team at MyLabs Pune in finalising testing kits for government approval. Her efforts got little primetime coverage.

Tina Dabi is sub-divisional magistrate of Bhilwara, and is responsible for the stringent Bhilwara model the nation aspires to achieve today. A Bahujan woman in charge, doing a better job than the non-Bahujan men at the Centre. Thanks to the rigorous plan implemented by Tina Dabi and her pro-active squad, Bhilwara was saved from becoming a COVID19 epicentre.

Calling this a lifetime chance to help the people, Dabi told the media that the initial days were very rough, packed with distress calls from students and families asking whether the authorities would really deliver essentials to their doorstep. The district registered its first case on March 19 and a lockdown was proclaimed on March 21, well before the Centre’s final national lockout. Of the 27 positive COVID-19 cases identified in the textile city previously, 25 patients recovered and 15 had been discharged at the time of writing.

Women leaders HAVE to be better than their male counterparts to survive. Mediocrity is not okay, as a woman, because of societal standards, even in the wealthiest nations. What is clear is that women usually ought to be stronger if they want to become leaders; we are measured by much higher parameters than men.

Women are never allowed to fall in the manner in which men can—you have to be twice as good as a man to be taken half as seriously.

Germany’s COVID19 mortality rate is remarkably low at 1.6 per cent. A multitude of factors have contributed to this, such as fast and extensive monitoring and the creation of a great number of intensive care spaces.

Germany’s head of state has played a role in this. Angela Merkel has a doctorate in quantum chemistry. She holds regular press conferences that establish clear goals, and explains concepts like R0 to the people so they can better understand the disease.

As the government led by Narendra Modi has shown, a lack of skills, competent advisors or clearly communicated solutions can worsen any situation. The Modi government has led with false hope, jingoism and propaganda, rather than expertise, honesty and action on the ground.

Over in New Zealand, the prime minister Jacinda Ardern showed exceptional clarity and compassion at the lectern, where Ardern's tone which mattered as much as what she said. These would be “the most important mobility constraints in recent history,” she said, and millions of New Zealanders might die without them.

There’s no easy way to say that. She ended up as she does so often: powerful and kind. From broadcasting live on Facebook to addressing the Tooth Fairy together with children, Ardern’s public compassion has an important role to play.

She teaches that politicians must shift to what is most fundamental to human nature when dealing with a crisis such as this.

Tsai Ing-Wen, a former law lecturer, was elected Taiwan’s first woman president in 2016 —the same year that the people of the United States elected their first ever reality television president. Tsai Ing-Wen has led a rapid and effective response to the pandemic, resulting in just 400 confirmed cases, despite Taiwan’s proximity to mainland China.

The government response there has been so well organised that it was able to donate 10 million masks to the US and 11 countries in Europe.

Correlation is not causation, and just because you identify as a woman doesn’t necessarily transform the way you cope with crisis. I mean, just look at Babita Phogat and her blatant Islamophobia.

My argument rather is that a gendered response is a must while tackling this disease. We must push for greater political participation of women, at the highest levels, and also address the ill effects of the pandemic on women.

We must acknowledge what women, especially those who are additionally marginalised, are going through right now.

Women are still being cheated by a gender pay gap, and are continually being harassed, sexually and mentally, on the job. They are forced to their limits. The proportion of unpaid labour undertaken every day “is significantly higher for women than for men internationally, while 66 percent of women’s work is unpaid for India on average and the rest is underpaid,” according to the World Economic Forum.

India, in fact, is a country where this trend is at its worst, with women putting in nearly six hours a day of domestic work while men put in just 52 minutes, according to the International Labour Organisation. The fact that 49% of women in a world of 1.3 billion people do not have their jobs accounted for in the annual GDP poses many questions.

The effect of being in the Global South for rural and urban marginalised women may be considered devastating. Migrant women, daily wage earning staff and vendors, as well as women working in industries such as retail and hospitality, are increasingly dependent on the recovery of the national and global economies, having suffered the immediate scourge of shutdowns with hardly any savings and administrative assistance.

Women make up a disproportionately large but significant share of the global healthcare sector at around 70%. In addition to the dangers of the job itself, medical staff who drew attention to PPE shortages have faced severe consequences for speaking out from their employers or governments.

These women, unfortunately, are also the primary caregivers at home, which includes unpaid domestic work. It is no secret that the disproportionate obligation on women to be exclusively responsible for this unpaid labour adds a hidden opportunity cost, and has a detrimental effect not just on their quality of life and job development, but on the prosperity of their communities as a whole.

ASHA workers (Accredited Social Health Activists) are underpaid and still have not been provided personal protective equipment in most cases. These are women working the primary responses to the pandemic: medicine distribution, data collection, creating awareness, improving sanitation, all help in combating the virus.

The sharp spike in reports of domestic violence worldwide means men are placing women and girls on the receiving end of physical and mental harassment. Tackling gender violence is like battling the pandemic: it is a multi-layered and dynamic process. Dedicated 24-hour telephone helplines, readily available therapy, legal aid, and more women’s homes are needed, for which sufficient funding must be made available.

In India, women’s participation in the labour force has been declining over the past 10 years. Although there are many reasons for the downturn in the formalised labour market, the severe consequences of a crisis like COVID19 are clear. Usually, it is women who are the victims of “cost-cutting” by firms, and obviously during a pandemic where these businesses are firing everyone, women will get the short end of the stick.

The post-COVID workforce will be primed to perpetuate these gaps, relegating women to the earlier role of homemakers. Those who may still hold paid employment will not get sufficient job protection or wages commensurate with their credentials or experience.

In the informalised economy, which is primarily where socially marginalised women find their liberation, the inevitable devastating effects on women will have consequences that could quickly undo the gains achieved in lending to small rural businesses owned by women, ensuring better food security, maternal wellbeing, the health of infants and children. This will have an impact on future generations whoever we are.

Politics has seen a stark trend of women not being able to get elected, not participating and worst of all, being constantly either deified and placed in relationality, or abused on their way out.

According to Amnesty International, “Women politicians in India face a shocking scale of abuse on Twitter, reveals data from a new study titled ‘Troll Patrol India: Exposing Online Abuse Faced by Women Politicians in India’.”

We must start vehemently fighting for women’s reservation in the higher echelons of politics. The Women's Reservation Bill pending for decades in Parliament proposes to amend the Constitution to reserve 33% of all seats in the Lok Sabha, and in all state legislatures, for women.

The last time the bill was seriously discussed, it was recommended that the reserved seats be allocated in rotation by drawing lots. We must restart a conversation about that bill, and we must do it soon. At present reservation for women exists only at the panchayat level.

To secure women’s livelihoods and train them for the post-COVID economy, governments must economic packages and relief funds adequate to significantly ease the pressure on low-income households.

Is that enough, however, when there’s no parity whatsoever? How many women have Jan Dhan bank accounts? How many hold ration cards?

The central government must take charge. Modi, instead of asking people to wear “gamcha” because others need masks, you should start providing masks for free. You know? Being Prime Minister and all.

The silver lining is that women are leading the way, lifting as they climb. Cheers to Germany, Taiwan, Finland, Denmark, New Zealand, Belgium and Iceland! The clarity, strength and love and concern conveyed by all of these women representatives appears to come from a completely distinct reality to the one we’ve grown used to.

Compare those politicians and efforts of state with the strongmen who are using the crisis to intensify a frightening perfect storm of totalitarianism: blame the others, neutralise the judiciary, vilify the journalists, covering their country in a bizarre positivity that only they seem to believe (Trump, Bolsonaro, Obrador, Modi, Duterte, Orban, Putin, Netanyahu…)

Who knew leaders could have a sense of accountability, empathy and clarity? Now we know. It’s time we recognised it – and elected more of it.

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