What a “Feminist” Approach to Fighting COVID-19 Might Have Achieved

A set of countries – including Germany, New Zealand, Taiwan, Denmark, Norway, Iceland, and Finland – is faring better than their counterparts in responding to the coronavirus pandemic, with lower infection and death rates, flattened curves, and higher levels of public solidarity and confidence in government. As a group, these countries made the earliest and boldest interventions, adopted flexible and pragmatic policies, and prioritized long-term human security over short-term economics. They used collective decision-making processes and delegated authority to local levels, while doing both in a way that made them an advantage rather than a weakness. When introducing and then loosening extreme regulatory measures and limits on freedom of movement, their authorities spoke openly and with compassion about the sacrifices ahead, including acknowledging that social distancing runs in the face of basic human emotional needs for interaction.

Reflecting on her country’s experience, New Zealand Ambassador to the United States Rosemary Banks told us recently, “When Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced her ‘Go hard, go early’ strategy of national lockdown and border closure, she won public acceptance through honesty, authority and empathy.” With only 1,504 infections and 21 deaths as of May 25 among New Zealand’s almost 5 million people, polling shows that Ardern has the highest approval rating of anyone who has held her office in more than a century. Collectively, the seven countries identified above have infection rates of 160 per 100,000 population, and death rates of 7.1 per 100,000 – compared with 451 and 27.2 respectively in the United States.

Their common thread is not only that these countries have women leaders, but that they have adopted policies and management modes that feminist research and scholarship associate with women. Feminist theory posits that women can generally better handle conflictual and multifaceted situations and are more willing to embrace complex solutions, reflecting their greater experience with contradictory roles and expectations. Some see these modes as embedded in inherent female nature, while others believe that women’s socialization and life experiences lead to these more “feminine modes.” All agree, however, that these qualities can be displayed by both women and men leaders.  

An Alternative Vision for Global Governance

More broadly, faced with a rising tide of new armed conflicts, refugee flows, trade wars, environmental decline, xenophobia, income inequality, and superpower competition, a small but growing group of practitioners and scholars have concluded that the world is witnessing the wholesale breakdown of a male-dominated, testosterone-driven global security system. Such advocates suggest an alternative vision for global governance. It would be based on:

  • International cooperation and coordination instead of a Darwinian “survival of the fittest” competition.
  • Prioritization of human security and socio-economic well-being instead of a traditional militaristic and forceful approach to national security.
  • Flexible and pragmatic policies based on empirical evidence, science, and long-term perspectives, instead of prioritizing ideology, public posturing, and national political considerations.
  • Diverse, inclusive, and equitable leadership and decision-making, reflecting ground truths and input from marginalized communities, rather than centralized, elitist processes that close down civil society space.
  • Transparency, flexibility, and a willingness to admit mistakes instead of face-saving, finger-pointing, and “show no weakness” postures.

What if the principles of cooperation, human security, pragmatism, transparency, diversity, and inclusivity had guided the world’s collective response to COVID-19?  Informed by “feminist” principles, how would our institutions have responded? We offer the following counterfactual scenario as a starting point for further discussion, and look forward to hearing reader responses at lte@justsecurity.org.

Collective and Transparent Actions

Under this alternative scenario, in late 2019, when COVID-19 was first identified, the U.N. Security Council would have declared it to be a threat to international peace and human security. The council would have brought China, the World Health Organization (WHO), and other international experts to its chambers to transparently share information on the virus, and then would have disseminated this information to regional bodies, other governments, and civil society actors.

As a first response, the council would have adopted a resolution to mandate global cooperation and coordination to slow the virus’ spread. Rapid reaction teams – similar to the U.N.’s emergency peacekeeping forces — would have deployed immediately to targeted hot spots and transmission points. The U.N. resolution would have authorized nations to use travel and trade restrictions, but these would have been adopted collaboratively rather than as ad hoc and unilateral measures. This step would have ensured that the measures were not used — nor viewed — as punitive actions or extensions of xenophobic immigration policies or trade wars.

To those who ask whether COVID-19 should be within the Security Council’s purview, let us answer a question with a question. During the period since the coronavirus emerged, what greater threat to global peace and security has the council addressed than a pandemic that has killed more than 346,000 people, infected 5.5 million, pushed 60 million people into extreme poverty, and brought the world to the brink of a global depression?

Indeed, one of the strongest feminist critiques of international law has been its narrow definition of national security as addressing acts of war and peace between sovereign states. Feminist international law and political science scholars draw attention not only to the systematic exclusion of women and women’s interests from the corridors of power in international legal and peacemaking bodies, but to the wide-ranging expressions of human reality that are ignored as a result.

Cooperation and Prioritization Based on Global Needs

To continue with the scenario, the Security Council or another mechanism – perhaps modeled on the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization (GAVI) or the U.N. Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC), a U.N. General Assembly-created forum for humanitarian coordination – would have brought health ministers and experts, business leaders,  and civil society representatives together to analyze the resources needed to respond to the threat. They would coordinate development of tests and vaccines and catalogue the international supply chains, stockpiles, and production capacity for medical equipment, testing kits, medicines, and protective gear.

Sovereign countries would still have prioritized the well-being of their own citizens, but they would also have recognized the speed and ease with which a spark from their neighbor’s burning home can spread to theirs. As a result, instead of engaging in cutthroat and sometimes corrupt competition, global cooperation would have already applied the lessons it took many U.S. states months to learn, including the need for regional compacts on criteria for re-opening their economies and for sharing supplies based on changing requirements.

Why did it seem so enlightened when the governor of California, which was experiencing a “flatter curve” than other states, loaned his state’s ventilators to overwhelmed New York and other hot spots? This approach corresponds squarely with “cultural-relational feminism,” based on the work of New York University feminist scholar and psychologist Carol Gilligan, which highlights the significance of human interdependency and inseparability.

Countries and international institutions would have recognized that the global effort would only be as strong as the weakest links. Problems and even mistakes made by global partners would be viewed as mutual challenges to be overcome, not occasions for finger-pointing and deflecting blame. The time for assessments, post-mortems, and reform would have come later, once the crisis had eased, and prioritized learning rather than scapegoating.

Setting Human Security Goals and Standards

By prioritizing human security, the metrics for response and recovery would have included not only raw health data and economic measures, but also a broader index of human security needs. The U.N. Sustainable Development Goals, adopted unanimously in 2015, would have provided a framework to ensure attention to 17 measures of wellbeing, ranging from health and food security to climate protection and women’s empowerment. These metrics could have driven national fiscal-stimulus packages, ensuring that the trillions of dollars doled out not only targeted traditional metrics of economic growth – including GDP, unemployment, and the Dow Jones Industrial Average – but fostered transformative global human development.

Incidentally, is it impolitic to note that donors countries that have long claimed they cannot afford to meet their collective commitment to provide 0.7 percent of their Gross National Income (GNI) for foreign assistance suddenly found upwards of 10 percent of GNI once their stock markets tanked and unemployment rolls skyrocketed? There are new concerns that the low level of foreign assistance – 0.17 percent of GNI for the United States vs. 0.61 percent for Germany and 0.94 percent for Norway – will fall even further as new budget austerity kicks in.

Global leaders would have rapidly coordinated and disseminated information regarding social distancing, testing, and contact-tracing, as well as standards to address the timing of re-opening of their economies. Such metrics would have been based both on the medical needs to slow and reverse the infection and death rates, and a hard-headed analysis of the devastating impact of the global shutdown on individuals and families, especially those already facing hunger, low income, and lack of access to health care. More attention would be given to the alarming increase in gender-based and domestic violence for those whose home is not a shelter, as well as the impact of the schools’ total shutdown on children and parents, especially mothers.

The adoption of common criteria would reduce resentment over regional differences and stimulate a sense of solidarity. Internationally and domestically, the failure of authorities to promulgate and support such standards has resulted in growing anger between those who are hunkering down and those who refuse to do so.

Diversity, Inclusion, and Marginalized Populations

A more diverse and inclusive process of leadership and decision-making would have drawn extensively on the unique input and talents of marginalized and vulnerable populations. These processes would reflect not only the higher vulnerability of women, racial/religious minorities, refugees and displaced persons, people with disabilities, older populations, the LGTBI community, and indigenous populations to the virus, but also the ground truth they could bring.

What is known as “standpoint feminism” shows us that knowledge is always situated in social position, and that members of marginalized or oppressed groups bring unique insights crucial to policy formation. Further, individuals and groups may be subject to multiple and intersecting forms of oppression and discrimination, which amplify their harmful impact. These realities would not only be redressed but also recognized as valuable and vital contributions to social and political decision-making.

On the gender front, for example, there would be a focus on the need for sex disaggregated data that reflect the virus’ differential clinical impact on men and women, the role of women in ensuring community compliance with health measures, increased threats of sexual exploitation and gender-based violence, the preponderance of women in risky professions, and other factors.

Consider the knowledge and insights that women risking their lives as front-line caregivers in hospitals and nursing homes could bring to the discussion. Women constitute almost 80 percent of these workers. Then look at the COVID-19 Task Force photo tweeted by Vice President Pence on Feb. 29, showing 16 men in suits huddled around the table in the White House Situation Room. In the three bodies established by the White House to address the COVID-19 crisis, there are 26 women and 239 men.

Fortunately, international responses, including from the above-mentioned U.N. Inter-Agency Standing Committee, now are insisting on an inclusive, diverse, and equitable approach that reflects the specific needs of women, people with disabilities and pre-existing conditions, displaced persons, and other identity factors. Global coordinating bodies are producing and beginning to implement sophisticated, nuanced, and differentiated policies and action plans drawn from broad consultations with local stakeholders. These considerations are vital as international donors and humanitarian organizations rush to prevent a catastrophe due to the spread of the virus in developing countries, in regions facing prolonged conflict and natural disasters, and in camps crowded with exhausted, under-nourished, and weakened displaced people.

A Century of Progress

In 1918, an unprepared world emerging from a devastating world war failed in its response to an avian influenza pandemic that eventually killed more than 50 million people and infected a third of humanity. A century later, as difficult as it may become, COVID-19 will likely impact a fraction of those numbers, notwithstanding the exponential increase in global mobility and the tragically ad hoc nature of our global response. We owe much of our success to 100 years of historic progress in science, medicine, public health, sanitation, nutrition, and education.

Much of this progress can be attributed to a century of feminist revolution, which advanced gender equality and permitted each of these disciplines to draw increasingly on the leadership and contributions of women. Imagine what we could have achieved if we had made as much progress in building a global security structure based on feminine principles of cooperation, human security, pragmatism, transparency, and inclusivity.

It’s not too late to find out.

IMAGE: New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern briefs the media about the COVID-19 coronavirus at the Parliament House in Wellington on April 27, 2020. Ardern recorded a significant victory against the spread of the coronavirus, as the country began a phased exit from lockdown. (Photo by MARK MITCHELL/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

 

About the Author(s)

Ambassador Donald Steinberg

Executive Director of Mobilizing Men as Allies for Women. Former U.S. Ambassador to Angola and Deputy Administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Former member of the U.N. Secretary General’s Civil Society Advisory Group on Women, Peace and Security. Advisory board, Global Governance Forum.

Ruth Halperin-Kaddari

Professor of Law and Founding Academic Director of the Rackman Center at Bar-Ilan University, Israel. Recently completed three terms as a member (twice Vice President) of the U.N. Committee on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).