May 6, 2020

We Don’t Want to Go Back to Normal: COVID-19 and Women’s Struggles

Cinzia Arruzza

The shocking images depicting the elegant steadiness of exhausted but determined nurses in Arizona calmly confronting a few hundred angry Trump supporters demanding a reopening of the economy in the name of “liberty,” and hurling insults and slurs such as “spreaders of fake news” and “traitors,” can be taken as a most striking condensation of the conflicts, contradictions, and social and political dynamics in place in the current pandemic. While the protesters’ signs and statements indicate a lack of social responsibility, extreme individualism, self-entitlement, and Spencerian acceptance of the demise of the weaker as a “natural part of life,” the nurses’ response indicates a completely opposite way of addressing the pandemic—one that puts people’s lives over profits, values care, and makes it clear how socially interdependent we all are.

Protesters at the Open Ohio Rally, April 20, 2020. (Photo by Flickr user Becker 1999, CC BY 2.0)

Nurses in the United States, and across the globe, are at the frontline of the struggle against the virus, doing their jobs while having to deal with an extreme scarcity of resources—ICU beds, ventilators, and personal protective equipment (PPE)—caused by decades of austerity policies, cuts to the healthcare system, and privatization of hospitals and clinics. As Tre Kwon, a nurse at Mount Sinai in NYC and a political activist, explained during a protest staged by nurses and health operators to denounce the dramatic lack of PPE: “We saw how the 2 trillion dollars stimulus package to bailout corporations leaves workers in the dust. While the companies are protected, nurses are dying, doctors are dying.”

The COVID-19 pandemic is bringing to light, in the clearest possible way, the fundamental contradiction between social reproduction, or the activity of life-making, and the mad pursuit of profits within capitalist production. Not only is the new virus a consequence of the capitalist organization of agricultural production and management of the environment. The political and social management of the pandemic is also determined by dynamics that have to do with capitalism’s constraints on social reproduction. The defunding of healthcare systems, which is one of the first causes for the skyrocketing death toll across the globe over the past month, is part and parcel of a set of austerity policies that have attacked social reproduction on various fronts—from social services and housing for victims of domestic abuse and violence to childcare, community services, care service for the elderly, education, social housing, abortion services, and more.

As denounced by Rob Wallace and others, most of the mathematical models predicting the evolution of the contagion and advising about the measures to be taken to slow it down and flatten the curve are predicated upon an implicit acceptance of neoliberalism as the horizon in which we have to operate. This approach to the handling of the pandemic, which puts an enormous burden on individual behaviors and responsibilities without addressing the systemic reasons for the current catastrophe, dramatically affects women’s lives. School closures were orchestrated in many countries without making any provisions for women, who would see their childcare burden greatly increased by the lockdown. Shelter in place orders have generally made no provisions for victims of domestic abuse (women, children, and LGBTQ+ people) for whom home is not a safe place at all, and in fact the UN has already warned that we are facing an escalation of domestic violence. Women, moreover, make up a large majority of the workforce employed in several essential sectors, from hospitals to grocery stores and pharmacies: They are the ones who are continuing to go to work, risking their lives by overexposure to the virus in order to give the rest of us the possibility of surviving.

In countries like the United States, this workforce is also heavily racialized. So, while the virus apparently tends to particularly affect men, the social management of contagion makes it a great threat to some specific social sectors, which include racialized men and women workers in essential jobs. It is sufficient to look at the data regarding coronavirus deaths coming from NYC to realize the gendered and racial dimension of the pandemic threat. Based on April data, the death rate among Latino New Yorkers is 22 for every 100,000 people and among African Americans it is 20. In contrast, 10 out of every 100,000 white New Yorkers has died from COVID-19. These numbers speak not only of a greater exposure to the virus for working class racialized New Yorkers, but also of the racialization of healthcare, which renders high quality care much less available to these sectors of the population.

But insofar as the pandemic is bringing to light in such a sharp and tragic way the class, gender, and racial relations that structure our societies, it should also compel us to criticize and denounce what passed as normality before the pandemic. Given women’s and feminized people’s prominent role in the struggle against the pandemic—and against its neoliberal governance—it is not by chance that some of the sharpest proposals for not returning to normal are coming from feminist movements and activists. The transnational feminist movement has drafted a call to action for May Day, signed by movements and feminist organizations from a number of countries, including Argentina, Chile, Italy, and France. This Cross-Border Feminist Manifesto begins by taking up the slogan of the Chilean feminist movement: “We will not go back to normality, because normality was the problem: the global feminist and trans-feminist movement, confronted with this new global health, economic, food, and ecological crisis, will not surrender to isolation and will not silence its struggles in the face of the restrictive measures undertaken in our territories to deal with the coronavirus.”

In seven Theses published at the beginning of April, the Marxist Feminist Collective has begun to sketch what not going back to normality might entail. In these Theses they call for: the decommodification of “health, education, and other life-making activities”; the investment of stimulus packages not in the bailout of private companies but in life-making work; the social recognition and better wages and working conditions for social reproduction workers; the immediate release of those imprisoned in immigrant detention centers, jails, and prisons; and the adoption of modes and mechanisms of care currently being experimentally developed by community mutual aid organizing. More generally, as noted by Lucia Cavallero and Veronica Gago, one of the greatest challenges ahead of us is to make sure that the current suspension of austerity in response to the pandemic does not remain provisional, but rather marks the opening of a new course. For this reason, they insist, among other things, on the necessity of a quarantine income in order to avoid falling into the cycle of new personal debt prompted by lockdowns and shelter in place orders.

In a context, in which pressures from big business to “reopen the economy” and to end the lockdown even in the absence of the minimal conditions required for the safety and health of everyone are growing and becoming increasingly vocal, we are faced with one of the most important political challenges of our lives. As this pandemic is making clear, “barbarism” is not a future possibility, it is our current form of social life. Our normality was barbaric, and the only way not to go back to an even worse version of it, is, as Spanish feminists have repeated for the past three years, to “cambiarlo todo,” to change everything.

Cinzia Arruzza is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the New School for Social Research and was one of the national organizers of the 2017 and 2018 International Women’s Strike in the United States. She is the author of Dangerous Liaisons. The Marriages and Divorces of Marxism and Feminism (Merlin Press 2013), A Wolf in the City. Tyranny and the Tyrant in Plato’s Republic (Oxford University Press 2018) and the co-author (with Tithi Bhattacharya and Nancy Fraser) of Feminism for the 99%. A Manifesto (Verso Books 2019, published or forthcoming in 26 languages).