‘It took a pandemic for the country to see what was already broken.’ New report offers economic recovery plan with feminist spin

From a women’s rights perspective, 2020 was supposed to be the year the world would reflect upon all the ways gender equality had advanced in the 25 years since the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, a groundbreaking conference that outlined bold feminist strategies to remove barriers to equality.

Instead, this year risks witnessing all those gains unravel, say the authors of a new report released Tuesday. “It took a pandemic for the country to see what was already broken,” write the authors of the report titled A Feminist Economic Recovery Plan for Canada.

COVID-19 has claimed more than half a million lives and affected at least 16 million people around the world. Another serious repercussion is the toll it exacted on the millions of already marginalized without even infecting them.

“Women are on the front lines of the pandemic,” the report says. “The jobs that keep our society functioning tend to be done by women, yet women are rarely prioritized in discussions about health and safety or economic well-being.”

It notes that women have borne the brunt of economic loss due to the pandemic, and in March alone accounted for 70 per cent of all job losses in Canada in the 25 to 54 age group.

The report by YWCA Canada and the Institute for Gender and the Economy at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management offers Canada’s first COVID economic recovery plan from an intersectional feminist viewpoint. It flips conventional gender-blindness on its head and puts women and gender-diverse people at the centre.

Recommendations include calls for investments in such key areas as housing, child care and anti-racism initiatives.

Shaya MacDonald, who is both Mi’kmaw and French and identifies as being Two-Spirited, was on YWCA Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation (TRC) Action Committee.

“We cannot talk about recovery until we talk about reconciliation and we talk about the inquiry into the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls and Two-Spirit people,” said MacDonald, who goes by the pronouns they/them.

“If we want to have an economy that works for everyone, we need to work towards dismantling things like anti-Indigenous colonial racism, things like anti-Black racism,” MacDonald said. “Indigenous people, especially women, Two-Spirit and gender-diverse people are disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. The people who experience things like oppression and marginalization, and financial hardships are mostly the ones upholding the economy right now.”

As the report says, “We cannot talk about protecting against COVID-19 if reserves do not have access to clean drinking water.”

According to Statistics Canada, 81 per cent of the Canadian health care and social assistance workforce is made up of women. These would be women who could not work from home during the lockdown

“Fifty-six per cent of women workers are concentrated in occupations known as the 5Cs: caring, cashiering, catering, cleaning and clerical functions, many of which are deemed essential occupations,” the report says, citing the national statistical agency. These would be women who could not work from home during the lockdown.

Racialized workers made up 42 per cent of the personal support worker labour force, double the rate of racialized communities in Ontario at 23 per cent, according to a 2010 study. These would be women who could not work from home during the lockdown.

MacDonald, who is a Mental Health and Addiction support worker in Toronto, was one of those who could not work from home during the lockdown. In fact, their work intensified because the people they worked with were now at higher risk after access to treatment and safe substance use sites were cut off.

Yet, it’s not only the historical devaluation of care jobs that has come to the fore in the pandemic. Gender-based violence has also seen such a rise that the United Nations referred to it as the “shadow pandemic.”

In addition, unlike previous downturns that impacted male-dominated industrial sectors, the fallout of this recession impacts women more than men, leading economist Armine Yalnizyan to refer to it as a “she-cession.”

The new report offers an eight-point-plan and 25 recommendations that include calls for investment to address historical causes of anti-Indigenous colonial racism and anti-Black racism, tackling gender-based violence, and creating affordable housing and decent, sustainable jobs that provide paid sick leave. It recommends policies to support the care economy and uplift women-owned businesses.

Of course, it focuses on child care. “Ensure that child care is a key element of all economic recovery,” it says. “Investing in care services will result in direct returns for the government.”

“We must consider how to re-evaluate GDP measures to factor in the enormous economic contribution of care work that is currently performed predominately by women,” the report says.

Greater investment in the care economy leads to enormous economic and social benefits, the report says, citing research in the U.K. that shows it creates sustainable jobs, reduces the gender employment gap and cuts down poverty.

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Unpaid care work globally is estimated at $10.8 trillion (U.S.), the report says.

How to fund all this investment? The authors suggest progressive taxation and a wealth tax through what the International Monetary Fund recently labelled as a “solidarity surcharge.”

Poorly paid women at the intersections of gender, poverty, race and immigrant status have footed the bill for the pandemic. We’ve called them essential. We’ve called them heroes. Now, as the economy starts to reopen, it’s time to create a new normal by putting the country’s wallet where its mouth is.