This pandemic ‘is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.’ — Arundhati Roy
Social distancing, such a double-edged metaphor. Billions of us have been instructed to stay physically distanced from one another to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, but have we ever been close? Close enough to feel the pain of fellow human beings experiencing poverty, violence, discrimination, injustice, as our own pain? Close enough to build societies and power structures where these situations have no place, ever?
Our sexuality and reproduction in the intimate and public spheres are affected by power relations, dynamics and structures that lie behind the daily denial of the rights of women and girls. Challenging this is essential to realize sexual and reproductive health and rights and gender equality in the ‘new normal’.
On the surface, the response to COVID-19 is achieving the impossible. Social protection policies implemented in record time to palliate devastating economic consequences and to help the estimated 1.6 billion people who are facing economic hit from COVID-19 , appeals for a global ceasefire, cities empty, skies and rivers cleaned. It seems like the millions of children demonstrating every Friday for policies on climate change, suddenly achieved their goal overnight.
The pandemic is proving that health issues need to be tackled by solutions that go way beyond the health sector, that things can be prioritised differently, and that rapid positive changes are possible, right now, without lengthy feasibility studies or transitions periods.
Commendable developments indeed, but do they mean that the virus has brought us emotionally and ethically closer?
Let’s not be naïve. This urgency has come out of fear and the need to mitigate the spread of a disease that can affect anybody, anywhere in the world, including Princes and Prime Ministers who mostly are now able to personally feel the whole extent of our interdependence as humans.
What will happen when that fear disappears? Will we accept the tragedy of what ‘normality’ means for millions of people and disproportionally for women and girls?
Let’s face it, the world we live in, i.e. the ‘normal’ is the result of deliberate political choices. This pandemic is a magnifier of how power is being exercised. Reinventing the status-quo to become closer to one another — in the real sense — demands that we challenge all power based on perpetual ‘social distancing’, to ensure that life with dignity, equality and solidarity becomes the paramount priority.
This pandemic is an opportunity to build a better future not only with hope but most importantly, with determination.
1. Building the ‘new normal’ demands challenging the powers that have led Governments to persistently deny the right to health care to their people, now implementing emergency responses which look like plasters stuck too late onto crumbling systems of their own making. Weak health systems where heroic health workers, — 70% of them women — are putting their lives at risk every day to face the tragedy of the pandemic, need to be a thing of the past.
The persistent debilitation of health systems includes rich countries like the UK, where the inspirational universal health provider National Health Service (NHS), has been financially asphyxiated over the last ten years. The Government’s attempts to resuscitate it in the midst of the pandemic seem too little too late as NHS professionals, technicians and cleaners lack minimum personal protection equipment, what prestigious academics have called a national scandal. The public applauding health care workers in the streets is good but the NHS needs funding and reform.
Surely this pandemic has demonstrated the urgency of making Universal Health Coverage a reality in every country and building strong health systems based upon the principles of solidarity.
2. Our diverse social and cultural existence must be factored in every health policy. It is necessary to question the power of numbers and generalised epidemiological approaches as the sole source of policy making. Let’s not reduce lives to the homogenising category of ‘number of cases’, particularly because the most underprivileged usually do not even become statistics.
Then, probably public health messages would be unlikely to ask to ‘stay at home’ to the estimated 150 million people who are homeless or ‘wash your hands’ to the three billion people lacking handwashing facilities at home. In some countries, the message to ‘go home’ has prompted rural people working in big cities on meagre daily earnings to undertake an exodus of biblical dimensions to flee starvation. Physical distancing may be impossible for 1.6 billion people lacking adequate housing and the 70 million forcibly displaced, many of them condemned to face overcrowding in refugee camps.
Uniform and centralist health policies should be replaced by local and specific ones, based on in-depth knowledge of how people understand their health and their bodies. It is not only about ventilators, community action and primary health care are essential if we are to get closer to the left behind.
3. We must question the power of patriarchy to tackle gender inequality at every level. The phrase ‘delivered by women, led by men’ is still a sad reality in healthcare. Despite the vast majority of health workers globally being women, only 25 percent of us hold senior decision-making roles. Worryingly, women are not represented equally on the main decision-making bodies facing the pandemic.
Only five women were invited to be part of WHO COVID-19 Emergency committee out of a total of 21 members. It is not difficult to imagine that addressing the rise of domestic violence and access to contraception or abortion would likely have been more rapidly considered as essential by more gender-balanced committees including representatives of diverse gender identities and sexual orientations and expressions.
The recent appointment of Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Nigeria’s former minister of finance, as special envoy for the Access to COVID-19 Tools accelerator is definitely something to celebrate.
4. Let’s confront the misuse of political power and the opportunistic abuse of the emergency measures to impose ideological approaches like excluding life-saving abortion services from essential health packages available during the pandemic response in the United States and Italy or ending legal recognition of transgender people in Hungary. Breaching fundamental rights with the excuse of the surveillance or contact tracing opens the way for human rights violations and abuses as in the Philippines where armed forces are instructed to shoot people who do not comply with confinement.
5. Let’s eradicate the power of stigma and discrimination that was so prominent in the pandemic from the very onset, when it was suggested that the virus had a nationality and people perceived as associated with that nationality were attacked in the streets. The disproportionate number of COVID-19 deaths among black communities, ethnic minorities and indigenous groups throws in our faces the chilling reality of structural racism and historical inequities that should be urgently tackled. Stigma and discrimination can kill more than a virus.
6. And finally, let’s interrogate our own power as an international not-for-profit community. Let’s ensure we leave our silos and the tunnel view of ‘our issues’ only and first, and standing tall and together unite in our commonalities to address the power structures that perpetuate what we fight against. Let’s reinvent the ways we advocate internationally with less massive conferences and air miles.
This is a historic opportunity to build a ‘new normal’ where respect, dignity and equality become the ultimate political priorities that one day enable us to overcome true social distancing forever and become closer as one humanity.
Words by Anamaria Bejar, Director of Advocacy, IPPF