The significant impacts of COVID-19, accompanied by national policies for managing the virus – travel restrictions, home quarantine, non-essential business and school closures, and social distancing – have led to major disruptions in daily life, often challenging the distinction between the public-private spheres. Many people, and disproportionately women, are simultaneously home schooling, working (if possible), supporting the elderly, and caring for the sick. Intra-household communications intensify, along with increased incidences of domestic violence.
Food systems, which have important gender and inequality dimensions, face similarly significant disruptions from COVID-19. As reoccurring shocks related to pandemics with similar policy responses are likely for years to come, viewing the challenge through a gender and inequalities lens allows us to critically examine how the virus, and responses to it, impact people differently. This provides an opportunity to shape more just and inclusive food systems.
An intersectionality perspective on food systems
Like other major economic shocks, the current pandemic has intensified and made visible the “invisible” structural inequities in our food systems. Basic food shortages and insecurity, price increases and the precariousness of jobs in the food and service sector (e.g. in restaurants, pubs, food courts, itinerant food vending), will affect both men and women, of all ages and backgrounds across the world. However, women and minority groups are faring worse. In urban and rural areas, the pandemic is magnifying the disparities in local food environments faced by different social classes, with gender intersecting with race, ethnicity, immigration status, disability, age, and other dimensions of social differences. Focusing on food systems reveals the interdependence between the Global North and Global South along the food value chain.
Higher risk of exposure to infection
The work done by women and minority groups in food systems puts them at a higher risk of exposure to SARS-CoV-2, the virus strain causing COVID-19. In the UK, women make up 55% of the food and accommodation sector (ONS, Oct-Dec 2019). People from Black and Minority Ethnic and LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer) groups in the UK and the US are also overrepresented in public-facing roles in the food sector (in restaurants, supermarkets, etc.), increasing their exposure to the virus in crowded environments. Compliance with social distancing measures is more challenging in poorer urban areas with higher population densities.
In the Global South, risk is magnified for low-income and working-class women and minority groups, as mobility restrictions mean that carrying out productive and reproductive tasks becomes riskier . For example, in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, women make up most of the informal food traders and retailers. As lockdowns are enforced, women with no other means to support themselves will need to continue to sell food. While this will help food availability in the short term, itinerant and street vendors are risking not only heightened exposure to the virus and fewer customers, but also repercussions of not following the law (e.g. fines, abuse, violence).
Income, price and time shocks
Women and minority groups have little access to protections and safety nets when engaged in casualised-contract, low-pay employment in agricultural and food sectors. Workers have limited coping capacity to deal with potential income loss. Their access to food and healthcare is impacted, especially where provision of public services is minimal or non-existent. Food import restrictions, processing plant closures and panic buying have led to food shortages and price increases, intensifying the financial shock for vulnerable groups (e.g. in Liberia during Ebola the price of cassava rose by 150%). The time burden that arises as a result of constrained food availability and access, directly limits the chance for rest and recuperation, which is essential for maintaining mental and physical health.
The invisible cost of reproductive labour and care
The pandemic makes visible the socio-economic and gender disparities at the household level, highlighting paid and unpaid caregiving and daily domestic work including cleaning, cooking and childcare, that sustain or reproduce the work force – known as ‘reproductive labour’. Work-from-home and quarantine have placed people in closer proximity to the productive and reproductive spheres within households, from which they may previously have been distant. The social and mental impacts of stay-at-home measures are more severely felt by people without permanent shelter, or in cramped conditions, with little means or space to cook and store perishable foods. The interplay between class, household composition (age, care-linkages, presence of domestic workers), socio-economic and migration status will shape the severity of direct and indirect impacts (such as domestic violence) of social-distancing measures.
In addition, reproductive work that has been outsourced to child carers, cleaners, and medical care assistants is disrupted. Workers in food preparation and delivery and the operation of wider food supply chains, who are often considered low-skilled and low-paid, are becoming recognised for their continued efforts to stock supermarket shelves, deliver meals and groceries and other foods during the pandemic. As reproductive work has intensified within the household, the pandemic has also revealed the essential nature of workers in the food systems.
A feminist and inequalities lens on food systems
Farmers and workers along the food chain are experiencing severe constraints under COVID-19 protection measures. Harvest workers, many of whom are from minority ethnic groups, labour side-by-side and often migrate long distances. This puts them at risk of exposure to the virus if they continue working, or of losing their livelihoods if they stop, in addition to restricting food supply. As production slows, retailers, who in Africa and Asia are mainly women, will also be affected. In the fishing industry, for example, the FAO estimates that women represent 60% of seafood traders and retailers and have little protection in contrast to the formal seafood sector where office workers, who are mainly men, are protected by full-time work contracts. Recent reports of Romanian labourers being chartered into the UK during the lockdown to fill fruit-picking jobs, while similar jobs have been declined by British workers, indicate the extent of dependence on migrant workers in “local” agricultural production.
New directions or old justifications for gender norms?
The COVID-19 pandemic has, like no other global crisis before, drawn the public’s attention to social reproduction and our socio-economic reliance on low-paid and unpaid labour, performed predominantly by women and minority groups. At the same time, it is important that women and minority groups are not presented only as victims, but as leaders and change makers.
Policies related to COVID-19 have also de facto challenged gender norms in food systems and the reproductive sphere. In Malaysia and Peru, for example, policies that limit mobility led to men undertaking care work such as grocery shopping. Social media has trivialised these actions, a possible indication that a shift in gender roles may not lead to lasting transformation. However, as COVID-19 experiences have demonstrated the impact of policy on social behaviour, it shows an opportunity for policy to impact on challenging punitive gender and racialised roles, in addition to the ‘invisibilisation’ of the private and informal spheres in food systems and beyond.
We envisage the need for research, policy and community-response efforts in these key areas:
- Link our food systems thinking to the care and natural resource economies and make visible the labour that supports it. This will require working with smallholder farmer organisations, women’s rights groups and environmental campaigns in the Global North and South.
- Ensure policy responses focus on challenging gender roles, and on labour rights, social justice and equality and improving access to goods and services (e.g. technologies like food sharing apps), through the introduction of safety nets, regulation, and investment in public services.
- Review new policies for their impact on gender and minority groups, and pursue opportunities for positive transformation. For example:
- Assess available livelihood alternatives and cultural importance regarding the supply and consumption of animal species
- Increase professionalisation and formalisation of work in health and safety standards in food systems
- Involve women and minority group leaders who are leading successful initiatives for sanitation, health and food safety work, and create solidarity through the sectors.
- https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-52216966; https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-52338706
- SARS-CoV19 (2019), SARS-CoV (2002-2003), Avian influenza A virus subtype H5N1 (H5N1) (2003- present), Swine flu (2009)
- Nevill C (2020) Zimbabwe: “Coronavirus will affect women and girls more than anyone”. Medium 9 April https://insight.wfp.org/zimbabwe-coronavirus-will-affect-women-and-girls-more-than-anyone-bbc21e52ff66 (last accessed 20 April 2020)
- Skinner, Caroline (2016), Informal Food Retail in Africa: A Review of Evidence, Consuming Urban Poverty Project Working Paper No. 2, African Centre for Cities, University of Cape Town.
- Gatiso et al. 2018 https://journals.plos.org/plosntds/article?id=10.1371/journal.pntd.0006580
- Bhattacharya T (2017) Mapping social reproduction theory. In T Bhattacharya (ed) Social Reproduction Theory: Remapping Class, Recentering Oppression (pp1-20). London: Pluto
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