In the Time of Corona, Listen to Women

As frontline caregivers in hospitals, retirement communities, and our own homes, women are our warriors now. Seventy percent of the world’s caregivers are women; indeed, our entire social safety net, from mothering and grandmothering to teaching and nursing to cleaning and food preparation, relies overwhelmingly on women.

Paid and unpaid, out of love, obligation, and often without protection, women across the globe care and provide for others, sometimes sacrificing their own safety for the wellbeing of those they serve. Yet at this moment of unprecedented global risk, in every country thus far ravaged by the novel coronavirus, local, national, and multilateral institutions, politicians, health systems, and the private sector have failed to protect those on the front lines.

Beyond their exposure to the virus, and the demonstrated indifference to their health and safety by those with power, women are also among the greatest victims of this failure. Although the avalanche of jobs lost can be crushing for men and women alike, the continued forced labor in some industries, from unscrupulous factory work to sex work to gig work, puts women at disproportionate risk. So does the documented increase in domestic violence, known to occur when families are cooped up for long periods in close quarters, even as hotlines are jammed, law enforcement is distracted, and legal protections seem unenforceable.

This unique vulnerability, compounded by the strictures imposed to contain the virus, puts women under extraordinary stress as their concerns about their families’ health, safety, shelter, and livelihoods only grow.

Yet from their privileged perspective on the front lines — in the clinic, in their community or household, at the bedside — it is these strong women who know best what’s needed for their families and communities to survive, recover, and thrive.

Women, therefore, must be protected and empowered to lead the design and execution of the response, recovery, and path forward.

Most immediately, the broad dissemination of accurate, understandable public health information to all those performing essential services is critical, including guidance about proper hygiene, social distancing, how to handle any suspected infection, and where to go for different kinds of emergencies.

Just as urgently, access to health care and insurance should be offered, first to frontline caregivers, and then to all other citizens, so they will come forward to be tested and treated without fear of staggering health costs. Safe maternal health services must be continued, so that no pregnant mother or newborn is endangered by the necessary focus on this health crisis.

Emergency subsidies for women who’ve lost jobs are also crucial — to women, because we know they consistently invest in their families and communities. This emergency infusion of funds should be delivered as cash transfers to their mobile phones, thereby strengthening women’s agency while reducing the potential for intra-household financial disputes and domestic violence.

Women must participate in assessing and prioritizing community needs, in developing plans for meeting those needs in the near-, medium- and long-term, and in directing the response. Whether by ensuring food security, procuring more lifesaving personal protective equipment, or, over a longer time frame, building out a more robust emergency response system or safer public transport or housing, it is women whose experience has shown them exactly what is needed where and when, to protect the population and the public health.

In short, it is high time we listen to women. Whatever the task, women always get it done — because they realize that no one is going to do it for them. We need them in the rooms where decision-making happens — as our caregivers, and also as our engineers, architects, urban designers, physicians, and elected leaders.

Watching Covid-19 wreak havoc on some of the world’s best-run hospital systems, in northern Italy, Spain, and New York, we can only imagine its inevitable tear through Rio, Manila, or Nairobi. Who will be the ones to step up in those congested, poorly resourced cities, to soothe the fevers, buy and prepare the food for the well, and feed the sick, most likely without protective masks or gloves?

It will be the women, of course.

Always there, serving, always vulnerable and determined, they are saving our world, one human being at a time. To ensure our safer future, we need to hear from them; if we are wise, we will choose them to lead the way.

#ListenToWomen.

Founder & Executive Director of WomenStrong International. Director of Millennium Cities Initiative at Columbia University.