Living in a gendered pandemic


Back in March, Google announced a 75 per cent spike in domestic violence- related searches. The federal government responded with an extra $150 million to family violence services. It made me wonder how much searching was ‘normal’, and not newsworthy. It made me think about all the searches that looked for answers, and what the story was.

Image: Woman facing window (AleksandarNakic/Getty Images)

I wondered how I could put that story together, how you would understand what the key search terms are, and what else needs to be in place to help any woman desperately googling for a solution. The next day I dropped my son off at daycare, and there was almost no one there. The government stepped in to help for the next twelve weeks, and it turned out to be my other child’s school that closed down. It’s now been nearly six months of childcare uncertainty here in Melbourne, and the story about how women look for help with Google was never written.

When I read Jess Hill’s piece in The Monthly which calls the coronavirus lockdown a ‘gendered pandemic’, I felt heard. I wanted everyone to read this article, to understand that feminist wins were being erased in the name of a national emergency, and that women were stepping up to the now larger domestic workload with a career cost further down the line.

I wondered, honestly, how many of my friends would have the energy to read it, when they are already tearing their hair out and crying in the shower.

Because Hill’s article doesn’t end on a happy note (spoiler alert!). It can’t, because there aren’t enough women ‘at the table’, to borrow from Sheryl Sandberg. And something we want is a quick solution, a bit like the woman who’s trapped and googles when her abuser isn’t looking.

What women get, and not men, is an assumption that if we have children then we secretly enjoy lockdown. ‘You’ll look back at this fondly!’ is the overall message from people who don’t want to have a conversation about this.


'The "gendered pandemic" terminology shouldn’t be a surprise; because epidemics have always hurt women more.'


But, we won’t reminisce about this time. How can we? Everyone is worried, the children are angry, we’ve no idea what the future holds, and we can’t go anywhere. Please tell me what I’m going to miss.

Men are allowed to worry about business. They earn more, so they could step up at home. My husband has, and I thank him profusely. For being a supportive partner, for being a great dad, for never questioning that I still want to work.

The natural way of lockdown though is time travel. Many families go back to the 1950s, possibly the man didn’t do all that much to start with, or perhaps he’s the higher earner and worthy of more protection. It’s a false economy; women’s careers will be harder to resurrect after this. Somehow this is still a female issue, not a social one.

Because we’re already seeing what happens when women remain marginalised: there’s a national emergency where they pay a higher price. If they live with someone who may turn violent (first time violence is also up), they are at risk. If they have children, they will do more domestic and less paid work, and hear they’re making precious memories. 

Memories are already a female zone. Take the idea of a ‘mental load’, made famous by French cartoonist Emma. It shows everything a woman remembers to keep a family going. It’s now an assumed part of how mothers live, rather than a question: why don’t men do more of this?

The answer, perhaps, is that we don’t ask them because we are too tired. The mental load debate doesn’t happen, because the next thing does. The ‘gendered pandemic’ terminology shouldn’t be a surprise; because epidemics have always hurt women more.

The evidence was already there, with SARS in Asia, with Ebola in Africa, with the countries that faced coronavirus before us. Women’s economic participation went down, their fears for the future and psychological distress increased, and they faced greater violence in the home.

The government has protected construction, but that’s not the future we need. Why clear more land and employ more men, when it’s threats to our environment that make animal-to-human disease transmission more likely, and produce more bushfires?

We’ve received a lot of information this year, sometimes so quickly that it’s hard to keep up. News stories move quickly, and we desperately await the good news that normality can return. There hasn’t been any communication asking employers to help mothers more right now, or that fathers might need to Zoom less, clean more. It’s all been too quick to notice.  

We miss our friends, and the chance to have an honest conversation about what is happening without being gaslit.

In a speech in Canberra this week, Natasha Stott Despoja called for the government to address the gendered impact of coronavirus. She talked about the extra violence women and children are facing, and how the 'female-dominated sectors', such as childcare educators, have been crucial and yet underfunded by the government. Recently, The Age reported the job losses hitting women as a financial 'gender disaster'. 

Suddenly, I felt hope. Surely there is a way to acknowledge that the reaction to COVID-19 has been gendered, and to remedy that in the next 'new' normal? We shouldn't accept job losses for women like how we shouldn't accept domestic abuse; first of all we need to admit that it's happening. That might, finally, be something worth remembering. 



Fernanda Fain-BindaFernanda Fain-Binda is a freelance writer and mother of two based in Melbourne. She is donating part of her writers fee to Safe Steps, the family violence response centre. 

Main image: (AleksandarNakic/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Fernanda Fain-Binda, COVID-19, gendered pandemic, Jess Hill, mental load, family violence



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