What does the COVID-19 crisis tell us about our health systems, and more globally, our societies?
The COVID-19 crisis harshly highlights the gaps in our health systems throughout the world, as well as the structural inequalities in our societies. More concretely, it tells us two things: Our health systems are profoundly unequal and they are a mirror of our patriarchal societies.
It is no surprise that women are currently on the frontlines of the COVID-19 crisis everywhere. Women are indeed over-represented in the care sector, both formal and informal. And despite the crucial importance of care work, most of it is under-valued, poorly paid – if paid at all – and made invisible. In the same way, it is no surprise that women, who make up 70% of the global health workforce, occupy only 25% of global health leadership positions. More than ever, we need a feminist response to handle the COVID-19 crisis in the short term, but also in the longer-term, to rethink our health policies and leadership, and our societies at large.
What will a feminist response to COVID-19 look like?
In times of crisis , there is a strong risk of reverting to old patterns, based on coercive and conservative approaches. Across the world, we are seeing redoubled stigma and discrimination towards populations considered to be “vectors” of the virus – including young people, migrants, and sex workers. Fundamental and hard-won rights, such as sexual and reproductive rights, are once again under attack. Our partners in West Africa are observing a resurgence of abstinence-only discourse to back up confinement measures, rolling back progresses made on SRHR policies.
But there’s another way to operate in times of crisis. This approach is grounded in human rights, feminism, a holistic approach to sexual and reproductive health and rights, and entails five core principles for action.
- First: Promote health as a human right and therefore consider it as the motto of every political decision, before addressing other indirect mercantile concerns.
- Second: Apply a gender-lens to policy-making. Analyze the potential impact of measures, such as confinement, on women and girls, and mitigate risks in a way that does not worsen gender inequalities. Where needed, adopt emergency measures, such as additional hotlines or shelters for victims of gender-based violence.
- Third: Prioritize and safeguard the continuum of sexual and reproductive health and rights.
- Fourth: Ensure that positive approaches to women’s and young people’s sexuality always prevail over stigma and conservative backlash, through the provision of comprehensive sexuality education.
- Fifth: Increase funding for feminist movements and ensure their participation in every aspect of COVID-19 response, from community level to global level.
While patterns of gender inequality are the same in West Africa and France, it is fair to assume that the pandemic will hit West Africa much harder and destabilize already fragile health systems and long-fought advocacy battles for SRHR at national level. The feminist response to COVID-19 will be championed by the expertise of grassroots organizations, all of which will need political and financial backup.
Last year, G7 States committed to tackle gender-based inequalities and unequal access to primary health care services, with a focus on the Sahel region. And yet the first measures implemented in response to the COVID-19 pandemic are not up to the challenge. In France, the Foreign Affairs Minister just announced a “covid plan” made of 150 million euros in donations, and one billion euros in loans to tackle “short term” challenges. Not only does this represent a setback given the proportion of loans as compared to donations funding the response, but also because the announcement did not mention gender or women. The French government has put feminist and human-rights based approaches at the center of its foreign policy. It has put efforts in adapting its gender policies at national level in the challenging context of the COVID-19 pandemic. It is now high time for France to implement a coherent global feminist policy. Equipop and its partners in francophone West Africa are ready to contribute to this.