By Grace Kwinjeh
The Covid-19 pandemic has turned the world as we knew it upside down. The shock and trauma that has suddenly hit us, is on how dispensable black women’s bodies have been and a global pandemic will hit them the hardest.
The virus has over the past weeks, continued to spread throughout the world with speed, reaching peaks, from China to Europe, USA now heading towards Africa. The number of coronavirus cases has soared above four million people across 177 countries, and more than a quarter-million deaths.
On a brighter note, going against earlier fears, Africa seems to be suppressing the curve so far, though a continued robust response is needed if she is to survive the worst of the pandemic.
At a global level in terms of female leadership, we have lauded the success stories of countries led by women having had the best responses to Covid-19, Germany, New-Zealand, Denmark and Taiwan, among those that positively responded to the threat of Covid-19, mitigating its impact and saving lives.
Compared to some countries that have suffered huge fatalities such as the United States of America (USA) and United Kingdom(UK), whose machismo leaders were more concerned with power retention, rationale science leading to procrastination and a resulting senseless loss of lives, especially of black women – is my bone of contention.
In these countries and globally the gender “shock” of the pandemic is felt with traumatic memories over the past months that have jolted black women, into realising how vulnerable they are especially to the violent exploitative nature of the patriarchal neo- liberal capitalism vis-à-vis the disproportionate impact they suffer, making them targets, easier to dispose of.
Take the painful story of Belly Mujinga, 47, a ticket office worker at London’s Victoria Station who died with coronavirus after being spat at while on duty.She is not alone.
Laying bare capitalism’s misogynistic attitude against black women, as they suffer disproportionately, not protected by the state.
The women’s struggle over the years, has been for access to proper health care and dignified employment, some of the issues under scrutiny, in the analysis of the gender impact of Covid-19 and individual government responses.
Where women are located in our societal strata at the bottom ranks, be it as care workers or those behind informal markets, makes them unfortunate targets for sickness or death.
Historically, black women have suffered exclusion, violent racial and patriarchal oppression, leading to underlying factors resulting from poverty and poorer economic living conditions as compared to their white counterparts. It took a horrible pandemic like Covid-19 to expose the brutal nature and vulnerability that black women have suffered as they succumb more to the virus than their male counterparts and white colleagues.
The UK Government has for instance been forced by the shame of the statistics to acknowledge that the problem is real in its health delivery system, as blacks and Asians are more affected by the pandemic, exposing underlying issues of historical inequalities, deprivation and exploitation.
It is demonstrably clear that Covid-19 effects vary with the social and economic class of both men and women. Women in lower economic classes will be more affected because they can’t work from home, they provide for their families and will need to go out and work, furthermore, they probably live in crowded areas and are victims of other forms of violent abuse, including state abuse.
This violence has manifested in many forms, with reported sexual harassment in the distribution of food aid, increased domestic violence, even more worrisome and telling is that women constitute the majority of those queuing for food handouts.
A system of patronage in some cases such as Zimbabwe in which politicians use the hands outs not as commitment to those they serve, but rather an insidious exploitation of their vulnerabilities, to keep them under subjugation as captured future voters.
This story is real be it in the Diaspora, where most of us are employed in social services or back home in Africa, where we are located in the informal sector, or as caregivers in the homes and communities.
Under International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank inspired structural adjustment programs, health institutions have been under budgeted for, with low capacity in most developing countries to meet the challenges of a pandemic such as Codiv-19. Pregnant women being at most risk as they seek prenatal care or during delivery.
In highly informalised economies, painful decisions have had to be made between survival that is feeding the family or agree to a lockdown.
For instance, last month a High Court in Malawi had to go against President Peter Mutharika’s announcement of a 21 day lockdown, judging in favour of protesters, who had taken to the street, cladding banners written; “Lockdown more poisonous than Corona” and another “We’d rather die of corona than die of hunger.” The protesters chose the risk of Corona and feed their families.
Globally powerful western governments response to the crude revelations of the stark ugly reality of the racial violence and inequality that exists, in health care systems, as the stench of Covid-19 could not be ignored anymore, was to quickly appropriate a ‘war’ language, beseeching all to honour “frontline workers” seemingly as if these were out in the Covid-19 war as martyrs volunteering to die.
Most governments were exposed as they had not provided these “frontline workers” with basic masks and gloves, basic PPE putting their lives at risk.
USA President Donald Trump is on record using the ‘war analogy’ a record 13 times in March alone.
The shaking over the past months, the trauma of deaths, an enemy residing in the air we breathe, has brought urgency to issues that were being taken for granted, at the fore is the impact Codiv-19, has had on women and in particular what has been termed as the “colossal failure of the neo-liberal version of capitalism.”
Across the globe we look at the various responses to the pandemic, with specific focus on women. As a woman in the Diaspora who has worked in social services, the recent revelations of the level of exploitation have been heart wrenching. While one wants to acknowledge that all frontline workers, have suffered to exposure to Covid-19, the disproportionate effect more specifically across, race and gender cannot be overlooked.
In the United Kingdom the Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) groups have been at risk and most vulnerable to Covid-19, while they constitute, only 14 percent of the national population, the rate of infections and fatalities has been obscenely high, raising questions on the working conditions, lifestyle and exploitative nature of the social services.
At least 30 Zimbabweans working in the National Health Services died.
There can be a ‘silver lining’ to the pandemic, as the black women’s struggle for their rights is projected, their voices raised higher, with governments realising how crucial it is to invest in the most vulnerable in society, acknowledge our common humanity and respect black women’s bodies.
Grace Kwinjeh is a journalist and and women’s rights advocate