By Marissa Conway
“Rather than rush to rebuild the status quo of inequality, we should encourage a deep structural transition to an economy that better values the work we know is essential to sustaining us.”
-Building Bridges, Not Walking on Backs
All around the world, governments have grappled with timely and impactful responses to the COVID-19 pandemic that keep the economy afloat and people safe. But it seems these two things – the economy and health – are often held in opposition. As an American in London, I’ve kept a close eye on my homeland from across the pond, staring in astonishment as US politicians, pundits, and even the president have held the economy in reverence, prioritizing its rescue over that of the sick. As President Trump stated in March 2020, “Our country wasn’t built to be shut down. America will, again, and soon, be open for business. Very soon.” Now, the US has the highest caseload in the world, with over 6.5 million positive cases and almost 200,000 deaths.
The US isn’t the only country that seems to have pitted wealth and health against each other in a twisted game of political chicken. I similarly watched with bewilderment as UK Prime Minister Johnson infamously initially planned to let COVID-19 rip through the population in order to build “herd immunity” and keep businesses open as usual. It wasn’t until scientists emphasized the sheer number of casualties that herd immunity would cause that a lock-down in the UK was finally announced. A few months later, one of those same scientists told Members of Parliament that had a lock-down been introduced even a week earlier, the final death toll of COVID-19 in the UK would have been half of what it likely will be.
The US and UK are not alone in this juxtaposition. The pandemic has sent every country into a downward economic spiral. In response, governments have continued to act as though the economy and people’s health are mutually exclusive. However, the reality is precisely the opposite. These two issues have a close and symbiotic relationship. We know, for example, that high healthcare costs stifle economic growth. Pandemic solutions that keep businesses afloat at the expense of public health are dangerously shortsighted and will only continue to drive us further down a path of long-term financial insecurity. In short, people’s health and well-being are precisely the best ways to guarantee a strong and thriving economy.
For a brief moment, I’m inclined to ask how we have come to live in a society where we must choose between financial stability and health. However, the answer is easy: in a capitalist world sustained by patriarchal ideas, wealth will always be prioritized over health. The better question becomes, then, how do we build a world where health and an economy that works for everyone can co-exist happily – and collaboratively – alongside each other?
Hawaii’s Feminist Economic Recovery Plan
In order to envision a new economic approach, we can look the recently published feminist economic recovery plan Hawaii developed in response to COVID-19 appropriately titled “Building Bridges, Not Walking on Backs.” Led by Khara Jabola-Carolus, the executive director of Hawaii’s Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), the document collects and reflects the aims of decades of feminist and Native Hawaiian activism. The plan was published in April 2020 by the CSW, and officially adopted by the county of Maui in July 2020. While it’s tailored toward remedying challenges that specifically impact Hawaii, it touches upon themes that are relevant for every corner of the world. Regardless of location, here are two of the most important themes that have global application.
Incorporate an active analysis of gender, race, ethnicity, class, and ability.
Marginalized people have been falling through the cracks in this pandemic. Women, non-binary people, people of color, disabled people, and Indigenous people are typically excluded from policy-making in the best of times. During the chaos of the pandemic, this exclusion is felt even more sharply. This can be seen in the death rates of Black people, which are reported to be three times higher than the death rates of white people in the States, and four times higher in the UK. Countless articles have poured out documenting the extreme burden lock-down has placed on working mothers around the world. Indigenous communities in Brazil are warning that “they face extermination” after being overlooked in pandemic responses. And in the UK, disabled people are twice as likely to die from COVID-19. As Hawaii’s feminist economic recovery plan notes, “those experiencing the structural inequalities that lead to poor health, will feel the health, economic and social costs of COVID-19 the hardest and will have the least ability to ‘recover.’”
Recovery plans thus far are largely meant to be objective or neutral, intending to provide everyone with the same blanket support. But circumstance differs for everyone. And due to the patriarchal nature of the societies we live in, sexist and racist biases will inevitably be reflected in any policy that doesn’t incorporate an active analysis of gender, race, ethnicity, class, and ability.
Support the shift to a care economy and increase women’s financial independence.
In order to ensure that the impacts of the pandemic do not continue to fall unequally on the most marginalized in our communities, structural changes must go beyond pandemic responses. As Hawaii’s plan notes, economies around the world are sustained by unpaid care work, which is more often than not provided by women across all races, ethnicity, and classes. Even though such work is critical to economic production, it is not considered to be part of that economic production. This creates structural barriers that contribute to the subordination of women, which manifests in a wide variety of ways including the gender pay gap, difficulty entering the workforce after maternity leave, or difficulty leaving an abusive relationship.
By excluding care work in the economic infrastructure of our society, and without incentives for men to share in that work, women will never be full participants in an economy. As Hawaii’s plan suggests, there are several ways to support the shift to a care economy and increase women’s financial independence through changes including raising the minimum wage, adopting universal basic income, and increasing corporate taxes. Importantly, integrating knowledge and the life experiences of women will help cultivate an economic infrastructure that prioritizes well-being and health, with safety nets to catch those who are most vulnerable. These high-risk groups include undocumented immigrant women, who were ineligible for the stimulus check in the US; domestic workers including care workers, nannies, and cleaners; women with disabilities; elderly women, as in the State of Hawaii, two-thirds of seniors living in poverty are women; and trafficking survivors.
The unexpected will happen again. The economy will continue to be impacted by unpredictable events. But if we continue to double down on a capitalist economy, rooted in the exploitation of labor as its means of sustainability, we will forever find ourselves facing the dilemma of wealth versus health. And if this pandemic has made one thing clear, it’s that as long as we base our society around patriarchal values, wealth will always win out.
Marissa Conway is the Co-Founder of the Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy, a current doctoral candidate earning her PhD in Politics at the University of Bristol, a Research Associate at SOAS, University of London, and is on the Forbes 30 Under 30 list. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @marissakconway.