What do we miss when we don’t bring an intersectional lens to analyses of the pandemic?
The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed how we, as women of color, occupy crucial spaces and confront oppressive systems in multiple spheres of our lives on a daily basis.
Gendered and racialized inequities have unfolded in front of ours eyes, bringing to bare the harsh and unjust realities that many women of color experience. These challenges have not changed due to the current pandemic; many of these inequities have simply been amplified. In our recent article in Gender and Society we suggest that we must look at racism and sexism in tandem to understand the root cause of health problems and inequities facing women of color in the pandemic. We focus on the impacts of COVID-19 on three (3) important settings occupied by women of color: home, health care, and work.
Women of color as devalued in the home.
With shelter in place orders starting in March 2020, home was presumed one of the safest places for people to be to avoid contracting the COVID-19 virus. Despite home being a safe place for many, this privilege did not apply to all. Reports of domestic violence increased dramatically, often in the presence of children and other family members. Talha Burki reports that “Some 243 million women are thought to have experienced sexual or physical abuse at the hands of an intimate partner at some point over the last 12 months”. These instances will have lasting impacts, introducing a number of public health implications. Even in homes without physical and mental abuse, home may not be a space of refuge. Since the beginning of the pandemic, women, especially women of color have reported higher levels of stress, anxiety and depression due to an overburden of labor in the home. This labor includes traditional household duties (i.e. cleaning) in addition to homeschooling responsibilities. These added expectations coupled with social isolation and resource insecurity foster an unhealthy living experience. Finally, women of color have also experienced increases in housing insecurity and homelessness due to financial constraints (i.e. loss of income) and abuse.
Women of color as disposable in work settings.
It is evident that the pandemic has impacted jobs and employment. For example, we prioritized and encouraged workers in positions deemed essential to work outside of their homes. However, being essential was far less than equitable. For women of color, being essential did not mean increased pay, benefits, and respect; being essential often constituted increased risk of COVID-19 exposure and working under even more stressful conditions. Women of color in health care make up a large percentage of the COVID-19 deaths. For example, nurses of Filipino descent account for a shocking 31.5% of the workforce’s COVID-19 deaths, yet make up only 4% of the workforce. For women of color in non-essential positions, loss of job security, loss of income, and loss of health insurance were prominent concerns that have a direct impact on one’s physical and mental health.
Women of color as dismissed in health care settings.
There is a long history of women of color being mistreated, dismissed and ignored in health care settings. This has been no different during the pandemic, as we are presumed incompetent, even if we are in positions of perceived power and privilege. For example, many are again outraged after Dr. Susan Moore, a Black woman, filmed herself in the hospital and reporting on mistreatment and the rush to send her home: “This is how black people get killed when you send them home and they don’t know how to fight for themselves”. Sadly, she died at another hospital after advocates pushed for her transfer—though perhaps “murdered by the system” is a more accurate description. Unfortunately, this example is one of many and we continue to see occurrences of neglect and silencing of Black women in health care settings. Access to quality and equitable health care disparities are visible on a daily basis and have been brought to light during this pandemic with testing, treatment and now vaccines.
We as a community should continue to advocate for women of color in home, work, and health care environments. We challenge scholars, advocates, journalists, and wider publics worldwide to consider how we have embedded both gender and racial inequities into the very fabric of our society and the perpetually negative implications that has for women of color. The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed already stark inequality… what’s our next move?
Dr. Whitney Pirtle (sociology) and Tashelle Wright (public health) are researchers at the University of California, Merced (UCM). Their most recent work takes an intersectional approach to exploring and analyzing preventable health disparities among Black women and women of color. Pirtle and Wright address the implications of racism and sexism on women of color during the current COVID-19 pandemic. Dr. Whitney Pirtle was recently recognized as one of the newest John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Chairs and Tashelle Wright was recently awarded a UCM Black Research Fellowship. You can find Dr. Pirtle on Twitter at @thePhDandMe and Tashelle Wright @WrightTashelle.