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THIS year’s International Women’s Day strikes a more sombre tone due the disproportionate impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and its economic consequences on women, with women in black, Asian and minority ethnic (Bame) communities especially left worse off than others.
The Covid crisis has thrown backwards the position of women and Bame communities and underlines the importance and intersection of the struggle for women’s liberation and the fight against racism.
The year-long crisis has been a choice of the governments of major Western economies, as they prioritise profits of the 1 per cent above the majority of people, and represents a qualitative sharpening of the attack on the working class, with women and Bame communities hit hardest.
Globally, 5 per cent of women have been forced out of work or out of the workforce altogether. In the US women have made up 54 per cent of the overall job losses to date.
In Britain, analysis by PriceWaterhouseCoopers global reveals that the full impact of job losses on women are yet to be realised due to the job retention scheme — however furlough data shows that women are at greater risk of losing their jobs when these schemes come to an end.
In Britain the number of Bame people in employment declined more than 26 times the drop in white workers over the same period. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) reports that 27 per cent of black people were finding it difficult to make ends meet, compared with 10 per cent of white people.
ONS research also shows that unemployment for black and minority ethnic (BME) communities increased from 5.8 per cent to 9.5 per cent, an increase of nearly two thirds, between the final quarters of 2019 and 2020.
The unemployment disparity rises to a staggering 13.8 per cent — more than three times the rate of white unemployment — for African and Caribbean workers. Unemployment is also higher for BME women at 10 per cent and is likely to worsen.
Despite the talk of increased spending in last week’s budget, in actual fact government consumption (day to day spending) is being cut by £4 billion per year. This follows a cut of 5.7 per cent in real terms of General Final Government Expenditure, from 2019 to 2020. This represents more austerity.
The insulting 1 per cent pay increase for NHS staff has rightly been responded to with outrage and possible strike action by the Royal College of Nursing (RCN). This also disproportionately impacts on women and Bame communities: women are a huge 77 per cent of NHS staff and 22 per cent of NHS staff are Bame.
It’s no accident that the global Black Lives Matter movement in response to the police killing of George Floyd in the US last year, emerged in the context of the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on Bame communities.
Britain has one of the worst death rates in the world and Bame communities have faced the brunt. Research shows that Bame communities are around three times more likely to die than their white counterparts. Although the government seeks to downplay the significance of race as a factor in this, there is no doubt that institutional and systemic racism is the underlying reason for this disproportionate impact.
The experience of Belly Mujinga, a black woman who died of Covid-19, is a case in point. Mujinga raised with her employer that she did not feel comfortable working in close proximity to customers at Victoria station, due to health and safety concerns at the start of the pandemic. Her concerns were not addressed and she was spat at by a white man who said he had the coronavirus.
In addition, the British Medical Association (BMA) and RCN surveyed their members and both showed Bame members complained of being targeted and reorganised to work in Covid-19 wards more than their white counterparts and also experienced a lack of PPE more than their white colleagues.
This shone a light on institutional racism in the NHS. One of the effects of this is the negative experience of black women, with black women in Britain four times as likely to die in childbirth — a shocking statistic for one of the world’s richest countries in 2021.
The US, Britain, France and others used racism and Islamophobia to distract us from their handling of the crisis. Trump attacked the Black Lives Matter movement, in Britain Home Secretary Priti Patel attacked refugees and in France President Emmanuel Macron targeted Muslims.
Macron has proposed legislation with the aim of supposedly curbing the influence of Islamist “separatism.” The legislation follows the expulsion of hundreds of Muslims from France, controls on mosques and severe repression of Muslim, anti-racist and human rights organisations including the banning of Collectif Contre l’Islamophobie en France (Collective Against Islamophobia in France [CCIF]).
There is no evidence linking the CCIF with terrorism — its ban is a frightening and grotesque attack on the right to challenge racism and Islamophobia.
The impact of this Islamophobia has led to a rise in support for the far-right and attacks on women. In response to Macron’s shameful attacks on Muslims, Marine Le Pen has called for a ban on the hijab (headscarf) in public places — a huge attack on Muslim women’s freedoms.
Recent opinion polls show Le Pen is now only four points behind Macron. As with the banning of the niqab (full face veil) a decade ago, this will lead to violent attacks on Muslim women.
Such Islamophobia is not unique to France. In Britain Muslim women have experienced the majority of anti-Muslim hate crime and we must remember that when Boris Johnson compared Muslim women wearing the niqab to bank robbers and letterboxes in his Telegraph article in August 2018, Islamophobic attacks increased by 375 per cent in the week after publication.
The pandemic has disproportionately hit women and black people. We urgently need a zero-Covid strategy to suppress the virus. There is no trade off between the economy and the coronavirus. We need investment, a bigger pay rise for NHS workers and an end to austerity. We must also step up the fight against racism, Islamophobia and anti-semitism.
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