Letter from Ground Zero VI: Essential=Invisible

Suffering is not a competition. The pandemic bestows trauma and tragedy on everyone. Yet it’s also true that catastrophic events expose societal fault lines. In the USA, the 2020 plague is crushing some far more cruelly than others. The poor. People of color. Old people. Disabled people. Female people.

Although most states haven’t disaggregated data by gender, ethnicity, or race, we know from anecdotal evidence–now being confirmed by slowly emerging data–that more women than men have been contracting the virus (due to women cross culturally being formal and informal caregivers). However, more men than women have died from it (due to men’s more risk-prone behaviors and to women’s stronger immune systems). We also know that C-19 has killed more Americans of color than white Americans. Black and Latinx New Yorkers are twice as likely to contract the virus and die from it as white New Yorkers. In Chicago, African Americans, 30 percent of the population, are suffering 70 percent of the deaths; the same across Louisiana. In an outrageous act of cowardice, no one in the presidential press conferences can manage to express a reason why the black community is so “prone” to contract and perish from Covid-19, implying it’s somehow that community’s fault. (How about racism? Pre-existing medical conditions due to poverty-related illness like heart disease, hypertension, and diabetes? How about working all those “essential” but low-paid jobs? Shrug, gee, dunno. Maybe research it for more decades?)

For that matter, how about rising racism against Asian Americans, violent verbal and physical assaults inspired by Trump’s persistent referrals to “the Chinese virus”? Especially the documented, increasing, infuriating occurrence of Asian American women in particular being shoved, screamed at, and spit on while courageously going to their jobs as omnipresent health workers in ERs and ICUs across the US.

Here and elsewhere we live under entrenched bigotries, themselves patriarchal systems that intensify and flaunt their status in crises. For women—a majority of almost all populations and demographic categories—the pandemic is a historic “perfect storm.”

For instance, anti-abortion-rights extremists have escalated their tactics in such key cities as Milwaukee, Detroit, Jacksonville, Huntsville, Indianapolis, Charlotte, Raleigh, and Greensboro, confronting patients and staff in close physical proximity, touching and coughing on them. Meanwhile, Republican governors like Greg Abbott of Texas have declared abortion an elective procedure that can be “delayed.”

Or glance at a category like employment. Even before the pandemic, full-time employed women in the US earned on average 82 cents for every dollar a man earns; African American women earned 62 cents on the dollar, Latinas 54 cents. (That doesn’t count unpaid labor at home, of course.) Now consider this.

The United States is a service economy, no longer a manufacturing one. Notice that workers in the hardest hit “hospitality” industries like hotels, though referred to as genderless—cleaners, cooks, servers, telephone operators, desk clerks, housekeeping, etc.–actually are female. So are the attendants on cruises and the wait staffs in restaurants, bars, resorts, spas, and clubs; the sales clerks in retail; and the great mass of office workers, factory workers, textile workers. So are the legions of teachers at every level, including child-care workers. And then of course healthcare workers. As you move further down the economic ladder, the skin pigmentation darkens, and the female voices express themselves bilingually. Despite repeated and continuing attempts to form unions, the great majority of these workers are not formally organized, so have no collective clout in representing their needs. The fault lies not only with their bosses but with a traditionally male-led, male-centric labor movement that still, deep down, regards women in the labor force as temporary workers on their way back to being full-time homemakers.

So in planning for social crises or natural disasters, “gender issues” are still generally ignored.

Globally, women comprise 70 percent of healthcare workers. In China’s Hubei province, where the virus initially was thought to have originated, 90 percent of healthcare workers are women. In the United States, it’s 78 percent. Nurses’ exposure levels to the virus are higher than doctors because they’re doing intimate care: collecting specimens, drawing blood, cleaning patients. Intimate care explains why contagious diseases are most easily spread between family members, too, as was the case during the Ebola outbreak in Africa. Because women are the primary caregivers and traditionally prepare bodies for burial, their Ebola vulnerability increased to a transmission rate higher in households than in hospitals.

Economically, viral outbreaks are devastating to women, who comprise most of the part-time and informal labor force workers around the world—usually the first jobs to be wiped out, and not return. In West Africa, a man’s income returned to what he had made pre-outbreak faster than a woman’s did. Policies like paid sick leave and accessible affordable healthcare address this, but are deplorably beyond the reach of most women in the United States.

Then there’s the unpaid, unrecognized work at home. A January Gallup poll reported women over seven times more likely to care for children on a daily basis as men in heterosexual married or cohabiting couples. Furthermore, according to 2019 US Census Bureau data, 80 percent of single parent families are headed by single mothers. The physical workload of having children and/or partners at home 24/7, not mentioning the psychological stress, is breathtaking. And what about women classified as essential workers who must show up but need daycare centers, now closed or closing? Women with kids do 2.6 times as much unpaid caregiving and domestic work as their heterosexual partners, according to the United Nations, which characteristically and diplomatically underestimates the number.

Add in the elderly, mostly female, whose care is also primarily borne by women.

Add in every nation’s hidden economy—the enslavement of women and girls by an interlinked pornography/prostitution/trafficking multinational sex industry that euphemizes such slavery as a “job,” and generates billions of dollars plus immeasurable human suffering.

The social safety net does not exist for female citizens in the United States, the richest and supposedly most developed in the world. But internationally, too, it’s worth repeating that in planning for social crisis or natural disasters, “gender issues” are still generally ignored.

Even where safety nets exist, they can’t cope with the exponential rise in domestic violence, which spikes in situations of great stress: natural disasters, economic crashes, personal threat, forced crowding, and even major football tournaments. With the exception of live sports, all are present in locked-down homes around the world. For women, Ground Zero is everywhere.

In China, the number of divorce applications increased drastically in the last month in at least two provinces, Sichuan and Shansi, and in Hubei province, domestic violence reports to police more than tripled in one county alone during the February lockdown. We see the same pattern around the world. A rise of 40 to 50 percent in Brazil. In Cyprus, hot-line calls up 30 percent. The Catalán regional government saw its help-line calls rise by 20 percent. In Italy, calls to help lines seemed to have dropped—but it turned out that they’d been replaced by desperate text messages and emails sent for fear of being overheard. In Spain, where strict lock-down rules have heavy fines, the country saw its first domestic violence fatality in the province of Valencia. In the United Kingdom, women have called for special police powers to evict perpetrators for the lock-down’s duration.

Reports flood in from everywhere. A women’s shelter in Rome. A campaign to protect battered wives and girlfriends in Greece. In Uttar Pradesh, a state with one of the worst track records of violence against women in India, a new domestic violence help line has been established to address the surge. In France there are code words for women to say when they walk into pharmacies: if they ask for “Mask 19” the pharmacist knows it’s a help call; France has seen a 36 percent rise in reported incidents, but it’s assumed that for each one reported 3 to 4 more go unreported. France is paying for 20,000 nights in hotel rooms and planning to create pop-up counseling centers in supermarkets. In Australia, the Silent Solution emergency call allows a woman to reach police by using her touch-dial phone without needing to speak and risking being overheard.

Except for Brazil, the world has yet to receive other than informal reporting from Latin and South America, which even normally are foci of violence against women. Moreover, countries in the Middle East seem to have fallen into an ominous silence—or are they being muzzled? (Think of the refugee camp crowding . . .) And there’s a void in reports from the sub-Saharan African continent. Or are the reports being ignored?

In the US, since Trump’s inauguration the number of domestic violence cases has sky-rocketed, composing more than half of all violent crimes in the nation in 2018. Before the lock-down, vulnerable women might have relaxed slightly once their partner left for work, or felt their kids were safe when in school—but when everyone’s home all the time there’s no escape. Even where the number of individual cases doesn’t increase, the intensity and frequency of abuse do, a pattern familiar from the economic crisis of 2008 and also from 911, Hurricane Sandy, and Hurricane Katrina.

Domestic-violence activists urge safety planning: Where is the safest place in your house? Don’t have arguments in the kitchen or the bathroom. Do you have a car and can you sleep in it if necessary? Some activists suggest setting up a daily phone call with a relative or friend who will call you at a specific time to check that you’re there and OK—and they suggest you set up a code word with this person so you can communicate if you’re not OK. Courts are still working remotely, and obtaining a legal protection order is considered an essential service in most jurisdictions—not that protection orders have been proven to protect much in the past.

If you are in the US and have a friend, neighbor, or someone else you suspect is the victim of domestic abuse, pass on information about the National Domestic Violence Hot-line, available around the clock and in more than 200 languages at 1-800-799-SAFE (1-800-799-7233) or text LOVEis to 22522. Almost every country has such a resource. New York State also has a special 711 line for deaf or hearing-impaired callers. Most states have similar hotlines, although the shelter system is crashing under the weight of so many women in need, some fleeing with children in tow.

None of this is helped by a gender gap in risk perception. A 2006 sociology research project at Sweden’s Gotoborg University found men consistently expressed less concern for a range of threats, but related to risks about work life: unemployment, economic problems. Women perceived threats more keenly relating to family and home: life and death risks. Consequently, an argument about handwashing (studies show men do it far less than women) can escalate to a major fight in confined spaces.

Science, dedicated as it is to facts, should have special intensive lenses on sex and race. Instead, these still are blind spots. In the US, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease–a division of the National Institutes of Health—is running Phase 1 trials for a potential C-19 vaccine. At this stage, they need to learn about safety and identify any side effects, as well as determine correct dosage. But these trials will only explore age and sex as part of subgroup analysis. This is a dangerous approach. In the period between 1998 and 2000, women (a majority of the US population) comprised only 22 percent of test groups for initial small-scale safety trials in new drug applications submitted to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Eight out of the 10 FDA-approved drugs were subsequently withdrawn from the market by 2001 for having “posed greater health risks for women than men, including valvular heart heart disease and liver failure.” As of this writing, Johnson & Johnson alone in the US has pledged it is analyzing vaccine-research data from Phase 1 onward by sex and age. Historically, science under patriarchal systems has regarded the male as the default human body, claiming the female is “too complex” to be studied, insisting the male-as-human generic suffices for both. Yet each cell in each human body is sexed. And it makes a life and death difference.

How then can it be other than a source of astonishment and horror—plus feminist rage and resolve—that in planning for social crisis or natural disasters, “gender issues” are still generally ignored?

How can it be that women—who are the majority in virtually every population, group and sub-group, race, class, age, ethnicity; in every community and condition, on every front line, the half of humanity essential for the species’ survival—are invisible?

What can we learn from this?

Ground Zero is now everywhere.