Gender Implications of COVID-19 Pandemic and Challenges for Community Interventions
By Dr. Vibhuti Patel
Dr. Vibhuti Patel is a distinguished academician, social thinker, researcher and speaker from Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. She is known for her extensive research and expertise in the issues concerned with women in areas such as gender economics, development economics, social infrastructure, human rights, women’s studies.
On March 24th 2020, the Government of India announced a nationwide lockdown that demanded 1.3 billion Indians to stay home and strictly adhere to ‘social distancing’ for 21 days to slow the spread of COVID-19. This emergency measure has had dire implications for the vulnerable populations – 94% of the workforce in the informal sector, women headed households which are poorest of the poor, persons with disability, homeless, lonely elderly, socially stigmatised transgender community, sex workers, prisoners and inmates in overcrowded shelter homes. The lockdown has been followed by curtailment of public and personal transportation. As per the 2011 Census, 309 million women are migrants in India. The migrant workers, daily wage earners, unorganized sector workers including the self-employed women and men have been worst hit due to loss of wages, no money to pay rent of house and buy daily necessities, exposure to hunger, malnutrition and infection and the worst of all- police brutality as most of them tried to go to their native place as they had nothing to survive in the neo-liberal decision makers of the urban local self-government bodies that were concerned only about middle and upper strata of the economy living in gated communities.
The lockdown has also forced women to bear the burden of unpaid care work, both, in terms of housework, home-schooling of children and enhanced care burden of sick, children and elderly. Over the last two weeks, women’s rights groups, community based non-government organisations, networks on right to food and right to shelter, citizens associations, self-help groups, trade unions have been busy providing provisions of all necessary services (food, shelter, water, healthcare, information) for the marginalised and socially excluded poor people most of whom do not have a bank account or Unique Identification Number (UID).
Civil society groups are extensively using social media demanding implementation of urgent measures to provide comprehensive information about COVID-19 to mitigate panic and initiate public messaging against discrimination and take steps to address any violations of basic rights of citizens/ employees by employers, landlords, state administrators and police. Indian feminists are focussing on 9 key areas of interventions for state and non-state actors:
- Food security for informal sector daily wage workers, migrant population and women headed households where widows, single, deserted and divorced women are the bread earners.
- Health care for womene. timely access to necessary and comprehensive sexual and reproductive health services during the crisis, such as emergency contraception and safe abortion. Maintain an adequate stock of menstrual hygiene products at healthcare and community facilities. Train medical staff and front-line social workers to recognize signs of domestic violence and provide appropriate resources and services
- Education through creation of educational radio programming appropriate for school-age children and expansion of free internet access to increase access to online educational platforms and material. The school/colleges and universities should enable students to participate in virtual learning and provide disability-accessible classroom sessions.
- Reduction of social inequality in care services by encouraging the equitable sharing of domestic tasks in explicit terms and through allowances for time off and compensation for all workers. The state must ensure increased access to sanitation and emergency shelter spaces for unhoused people. It should implement protocol and train authorities on recognizing and engaging vulnerable populations, particularly where new laws are being enforced. Consultations of the government bodies with civil society organizations are a MUST for implementing the legislation and policy and for guaranteeing equal access to information, public health education and resources in multiple languages.
- Water and sanitation departments of the local self-government bodies must cease all disconnections and waive all reconnection fees to provide everyone with clean, potable water.
- Feminists are demanding reduction of economic inequality through engendered public economics policies and gender responsive participatory budgeting, Protection services to deal with violence against women, domestic violence/intimate partner violence in the context of the lockout as well as mass exodus of migrant workers.
- Along with human rights organisations, feminists are demanding adoption of human rights-oriented protocols with regards to people in prisons, administrative migration centres, quarantine centres, refugee camps, and people with disabilities in institutions and psychiatric facilities who are at higher risk of contagion due to the confinement conditions.
- Feminists have been strongly advocating against the communalisation of COVID-19 crisis to whip up Islamophobia and stigmatisation of poor migrants.
- Ensuring availability of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), safety, security, welfare and inclusion in decision making (with regards to combating COVID-19) of the front-line workers – doctors, nurses, sanitary staff, volunteers of NGOs who are risking their lives, is the topmost priority as well as the challenge for citizens and the state.