The Catch-22 at the Heart of the COVID-19 Crisis

Sandra Pepera, Senior Associate and Director for NDI's Gender, Women and Democracy team.

It’s an extraordinary time, isn’t it? Women are leading the war against COVID-19. Women like the White House’s Ambassador (Colonel, Doctor) Deborah Birx, who is clear about her target audience (mostly folks like my three millennials); and Mayor Rohey Malick Lowe of Banjul, The Gambia, who has deployed a COVID-19 Sensitization Team of young women and young men across the capital; and Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg who gave a coronavirus press conference for kids; and the Minister of Public Works and Infrastructure (former Mayor) Patricia de Lille, in South Africa who is finding quarantine sites and recruiting 20,000 public health workers throughout the country. Their assured confidence in taking initiative, acting with resilience, and driving for results - all attributes which the Harvard Business Review scored more highly in women than in men - should not be mistaken for more competent leadership, it is more competent leadership. And like so many women worldwide, some of these leading women also bear the daily brunt of health-, elder- and childcare.
COVID-19 is the latest but not the last global pandemic, and it will require both health and political responses. Neither can be delivered efficiently or effectively, without the voice and agency of the millions of women and girls even now leading the global fight against this disease. In the words of NDI’s Board Chairman, Secretary Madeleine Albright, “women in power raise issues others overlook, invest in projects that others dismiss and seek to end abuses that others ignore.”  Yet, the unprecedented number of women in the forefront is not enough. 
This is a global health emergency, one that reminds us of the sometimes dangerous gender gap in the providers of life-saving healthcare. The World Health Organization (WHO) tells us that 70% of all paid healthcare jobs are held by women and, on top of that, 50% of women’s contribution to health around the globe is unpaid. It's a  staggering statistic that of the 29 million papers published on the Zika and Ebola epidemics - both hugely gendered health shocks - less than 1% explored their gendered impact. And, while women are on the frontlines delivering care in hospitals, clinics, and their own homes, they remain under-represented in global health leadership: only 20% of WHO’s own Emergency Committee is female. That’s how invisible women are in the global debate, at a time when their voices and perspectives are needed most.    
We’re all in this together, right, so does it matter if there are still more men leading the fight? Yes, we are, and yes, it does. Why? Because, this is not only a health emergency, it is also a profound shock to our societies and economies. Which is why the COVID-19 crisis also has long-term opportunities and threats for gender equality and women’s political empowerment following in its wake. 
Let’s go with examples of some of the threats first. As schools shut and the care burden for the sick and other children builds on women and girls, girls are more likely to have their education curtailed. This can have life-changing impacts such as early child marriage, a struggle for decent work, and a lack of confidence in their ability to be political leaders. Imposed movement restrictions hit women in multiple ways: they face increased levels of domestic and intimate partner violence at home, and they are often harassed, abused and assaulted by formal or informal security agents outside; the diversion of police resources to the response to the disease leaves women without the state protection that they are entitled to; and the physical restrictions often find further expression in the resurgence of retrogressive laws, policies and norms. The Catch-22 is that just when they are needed most to build resilience and represent their communities, between the fear of violence, the absence of protection and closing horizons, women are more likely to withdraw from political engagement than to step forward.   
Amid the challenges, there are concrete opportunities. These include closing the digital gender gap through impactful policies and programs that link women and girls to politicians and policy-makers so they can advocate for their needs and hold their representatives to account. There’s the possibility of introducing new social policy to ‘unstereotype’ the division of responsibilities that has women in some places spending ten times more time than men on unpaid care and domestic work. Finally, we can identify and support the women - social activists, professionals and in movements - at the grassroots and in their communities who are truly managing the COVID-19 response at community level and can become the next wave of political leaders.  
At NDI we are committed to ensuring that both the health and political responses to this pandemic are truly democratic and reflect the perspectives and leadership of women and girls for the benefit of us all. Join us, as together we can change the face of politics.