By The Gender and Feminist Geographies Research Group of the RGS-IBG
We have been told repeatedly that this virus is a great leveller, that it does not discriminate; but it does. The death rate from the disease is twice as high for men as women, Black men in the UK are 4.2 times as likely to be killed by the disease than white men of the same age, Black women 4.3 times as likely as white women. Disabled and chronically ill people are not only at higher risk of death from the virus itself, but also as a result of the institutionalised ableism in health care policy and medical ethics. COVID-19 has hit the most deprived neighbourhoods and the most deprived people hardest. Inequality has shaped the pandemic, its course through the country and responses to it.
Our ability to adjust to the pandemic, to protect ourselves or to find a ‘new normal’ is unequal too. Women and young people have been most likely to lose paid work, low-paid workers in personal services most likely to have to continue working in close contact with others, often without adequate protection. People with the highest incomes (disproportionately white men) are the most likely to be able to work from home and to have the space and equipment to do so. Staying home is not the same for a household with a big house and garden as it is for a large family in a small flat. COVID-19 and the social response to the pandemic have caused population-level anxiety, which is being experienced variable ant the individual level. We are perhaps in the same storm but different in boats. In the UK domestic abuse helpline have risen by 49 per cent and charities assisting vulnerable families have seen an exponential surge in demand for their services. In India the ‘world’s most dangerous country for women’, the scale of domestic violence has escalated to such an extent that the National Commission for Women (NCW) has launched a Whatsapp service in addition to supporting online complaints. These examples show the need to examine and understand how the geopolitical dimensions of the pandemic are impacting individual’ homelife and how homelife is also characterising individual experiences of the pandemic (see Brickell 2012). For some this will be a period of deep trauma and we may only learn the extent of what people have suffered over the years to come.
For academics these inequalities have been felt in the threat of job losses and cut hours for casualized staff, PhD students coming to the end of their studies face bleak prospects for employment in universities, or elsewhere, while staff and students with caring responsibilities have seen demands on their time multiply. Unsurprisingly, women are doing the majority of the increased childcare and housework that lockdown has brought, with domestic pressures even greater for parents of disable children with complex care needs, who have lost access to respite and other support services. The effects of this are measurable in a reduced ability to do research, to write and to publish – the things that ‘count’ for promotions and job security. Around the world, as universities move their teaching online, existing inequalities are being strengthened and social and gender divides between students are widening.
This virus is not an equaliser, it does discriminate. We call on universities and other actors in Higher Education to monitor and ameliorate this discrimination. Covid-19 could undo decades of work towards equality within the academy, we must not let this happen. Instead, we can use this opportunity to imagine a new future, where the value of caring is recognised, work is flexible and the environmental gains of our new ways of working continued. We could embrace an ethic of care within academia, redefine what is important, and build an academic world that is sustainable, caring, and respectful to all.
About the Authors: This piece was authored by the Gender and Feminist Geographies Research Group of the RGS-IBG and is reproduced with their permission. The original statement is available here. The group are also inviting reflections on Academia in Covid-19 times on the website here https://gfgrg.co.uk/academia-in-covid-19-times-reflections-on-practice
Suggested further readings
Brickell, K. (2012) ‘Geopolitics of Home’, Geography Compass, vol. 6, no. 10, pp. 575–588 [Online]. Available at http://doi.wiley.com/10.1111/j.1749-8198.2012.00511.x.
Corbera, E., Anguelovski, I., Honey-Rosés, J. and Ruiz-Mallén, I. (2020) ‘Academia in the Time of COVID-19: Towards an Ethics of Care’, Planning Theory & Practice, pp. 1–9 [Online]. Available at https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/14649357.2020.1757891.