It’s hard to look for the positives when so much is crashing around us.
As death tolls and unemployment rates climb, the pandemic continues to lay bare inequalities that went undiscussed in the public eye for too long. Black, Native and immigrant communities are dying at higher rates from the coronavirus in many parts of the country, likely due to socioeconomic and health disparities in majority-marginalized neighborhoods. Essential workers at major chains make small hourly wages and have to protest for paid sick leave, a few extra dollars in hazard pay and protective materials in the workplace such as masks and soap. Small businesses are shutting their doors and the resources from a $349 billion fund meant to help them dried up in its first round because major chains had the resources to apply faster.
But looking back on history, some major social changes came from our greatest challenges.
Women took on various roles during World War I working at factories and as ambulance drivers, farm workers and nurses, and in many countries women’s suffrage followed the war. During World War II, women took on more jobs at home, and more than 350,000 joined the military to repair planes, nurse soldiers, drive trucks and perform clerical work. While men mostly reclaimed their factory jobs once they returned from the war, about a third of women older than 14 worked outside of the home within a few years of the war’s end.
Obviously, gender, racial and other disparities persisted after each of these moments, and in the grand scheme of history, they may have been small steps forward in terms of trying to achieve equality. Still, I would like to see the pandemic as an opportunity to rebuild and fix the inequities it has so clearly exposed. Governments must push for new laws and practices that value level the playing field, rather than only offering assistance.
Hawaii is already leading the way. The state recently proposed what it labeled a “feminist economic recovery plan” that includes publicly funded child care for essential workers, a nearly $25 hourly minimum wage for single mothers, universal basic income and covered co-payments on coronavirus testing and treatment. Hawaii’s plan sets aside an emergency fund for marginalized groups, including undocumented immigrant women, women with disabilities, domestic workers and sex trafficking survivors, and it proposes 20% of coronavirus response funds be pro-rated to help the recovery of indigenous populations.
Khara Jabola-Carolus, who leads the state’s Commission on the Status of Women, explained the goals of the policy best in an interview with The Lily, an offshoot of The Washington Post.
“Normally, this ‘women’s work’ seems nonessential, but during COVID-19, it’s [society’s] only defense from total collapse,” Jabola-Carolus said. “If we want a sustainable recovery, we need to formally revalue this work, entice men to do it and integrate our economy around it.”
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has called this pandemic “the great equalizer,” acting as though it has placed us all in a similar situation. All Americans feel anxious right now but for far-ranging reasons. Nurses, doctors, store clerks, pharmacists, garbage collectors and postal carriers are worried they’ll contract a new and deadly disease and spread it to their loved ones at home, and many who are out of work wonder how they’ll pay bills or find a new job.
The coronavirus has yet to equalize anything, but hopefully lawmakers will see the dire need for change in a system that devalues its most essential workers and puts its own people at greater risk of falling ill. And for women and other underrepresented groups, who make up a majority of the essential workforce that holds our society together right now, it’s necessary to rethink and rebuild these policies. If Hawaii can create a progressive plan that provides extra support to underrepresented groups during recovery, there’s hope that other states and the whole country could do the same.
Andrea Klick is a sophomore writing about women’s identities. Her column, “She is Fierce,” typically runs every other Monday.