Gender equality and social inclusion in a COVID-19 world


As the COVID-19 pandemic unfolds around the world at varying speeds and levels of intensity, one thing has become clear – the socio-economic effects are felt very differently by women and men, and by minority and excluded populations.

The Canadian Council for International Cooperation (CCIC ) along with MEDA and a consortium of other member organizations recently signed a letter to the Canadian Minister for International Development highlighting the importance of prioritizing a feminist, human-rights based approach to economic development in the midst of other pressures posed during this global pandemic.

The consortium notes that, “Women, people facing poverty, people with disabilities and marginalized individuals are often the primary users of services now being closed. Many women are primary caregivers responsible for supporting people affected by disease…and [are] therefore more vulnerable to infection themselves.”

Continuing to advance gender equality and social inclusion within our market systems development work around the world remains a focus for MEDA, and is now a priority more than ever in the face of a pandemic that is rapidly challenging the gains we have made in inclusive economic growth.

Magnification of Existing Equalities

In times of crisis, a spotlight is shone on the systems that are meant to protect us, laying bare shortcomings and failings. The coronavirus is exacerbating existing inequalities and demonstrating where we lack social supports and safety nets for our most socio-economically vulnerable and marginalized populations, who are also at the highest risk of contracting the virus.

With children out of school and elderly or ailing parents house-bound, care burdens are expanding, and women are increasingly taking on more responsibility. There is growing evidence that the virus is disproportionately impacting communities of colour, as well as vulnerable and excluded members of society, including homeless and elderly people.

Intersectional feminist responses to COVID-19 are exposing the pressing need to examine systemic discrimination through the lens of the pandemic, as a broad-ranging global health and economic crisis that highlights the failure of neoliberal capitalism and the fragility and unsustainable nature of our global supply chains.

Economic disparities and the unequal distribution of power as a consequence of globalization is demonstrating that to “shelter in place” and the ability to self-isolate in a safe space with sufficient supplies is a privilege that few can afford, and this is particularly the case in more informal economies in the Global South.

Economic Impacts

Half of global employment comes from small and medium enterprises, engines of economic growth that also contribute up to 40% of GDP globally. Approximately a third of these are led by women and almost half of all women in the non-agricultural labour force in Africa are entrepreneurs.

The medium and long-term effects that the coronavirus will have on these small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) is unclear at this point, but what is clear is that these businesses must be supported.

Some countries have been able to establish business support programs, such as Canada’s Emergency Wage Subsidy and the US Government’s Paycheck Protection Program, but in many cases, demand has outstripped supply. Business owners in countries with little or no government support will need to choose between staying open and staying healthy.

For those in formal employment, entire industries have become home-based. However, many jobs cannot be done remotely, and those people must balance earning a living with the risk of exposure.

Since WWII men have traditionally comprised the bulk of the American work force. However, since the coronavirus has eliminated many jobs and forced surviving businesses to pivot – a new workforce has emerged – the ‘essential’ worker.

According to a recent New York Times article, the coronavirus has inverted traditional gender work ratios with the majority of jobs now declared ‘essential’ being held by women. In fact, one in three working women are doing work designated as ‘essential.’ Many of these are undervalued and underpaid – care workers, pharmacists and pharmacy aides, nurses, support workers and, grocery store and fast food clerks.

Young people who are out of work for extended periods of time experience financial and psychological long-term impacts. New to the workforce, they are often ‘last in, first out’ in economic downturns. What can we do to avoid a global post-COVID19 ‘lost generation’ of young people?

Opportunities: Learn from this crisis

Because this pandemic is widespread (unlike other health crises, which have been more geographically specific – e.g., Ebola in West Africa), there will be an enormous amount of data generated and collected.

Previous health crises (including the 2014 Ebola epidemic and the 2012 cholera outbreak in Sierra Leone) were marked by a lack of age and sex-disaggregated data, making it difficult to understand the impacts of the problem on different populations and how to tailor responses effectively. There may be an opportunity to do comprehensive analysis of this health crisis from several perspectives, including gender and age, because of the huge amount of data.

Another potential outcome is the degree of visibility that the care economy suddenly has – both paid and unpaid. Healthcare workers are being recognized as the ‘frontline’ on this crisis. With many schools and daycare facilities closed, many families are balancing childcare and work. As Helen Lewis notes in a recent article for The Atlantic, researchers and policy makers “have assumed that childcare and elderly care can be “soaked up” by private citizens—mostly women—effectively providing a huge subsidy to the paid economy. This pandemic should remind us of the true scale of that distortion.”

Think about the future now

Crisis often leads to significant, long-term social change. For example, the substantial increase in women working outside the home during the Second World War is well documented. Though many of these jobs reverted to men returning from the war, attitudes shifted permanently about the type and scale of work considered ‘appropriate’ for women.

Despite the terrible toll COVID is taking, MEDA is maximizing the opportunities this crisis will bring. In the immediate term, responding to the crisis with compassion and inclusion is essential. We are reaching out to our clients – many of whom are long-standing partners – around the world to understand the impacts on their lives and their businesses. Wherever possible, we are committed to providing a range of resources and support, from digital information to grants and loans for micro and small business partners.

In the longer term, our decisions are being driven by the principle of ‘building back better. ’ COVID19 has demonstrated clearly that we are only as strong as the most vulnerable among us. Structural inequalities limit the opportunities available to many – including women, youth and communities of colour. As outlined in our 10 Commitments Pledge, MEDA continues to prioritize responding to global challenges with an intersectional approach, keeping our clients – particularly women, youth and other excluded populations – at the centre of everything we do.



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