Much coverage has been given to the response by women leaders globally to the Covid-19 crisis, and how their robust and quick strategies have resulted in low infection rates and deaths. Although these responses have seemingly come as a surprise to analysts, it may be even more surprising for them to learn that feminist leadership extends way beyond and before the mostly white and northern women leaders that they are praising. These leaders are establishing practices rooted in values and approaches that South feminists, women of color, women with disabilities, indigenous women, and LBT women, have been calling for over decades, centuries in some cases. Also, these leaders’ future actions must go further in addressing the systems of power that have both led to this crisis, and exacerbated it, and must seek to dismantle and rebuild these systems, to ensure true transformation.
Commentators have queried what has been most effective about the responses of these leaders, suggesting for example levels of empathy, the willingness to rely on sound expertise and advice, even comparing their approach to the ‘poverty of imagination’ and ‘war fixation’ of their male counterparts. The distinctions are clear in the ways many of these leaders have addressed the crisis, especially comparatively with other leaders that have used the Covid-19 crisis to make further gains towards authoritarian control. We must however, be cautious not to place “women leaders” in one single homogenous box as a result of their gender, which reinforces harmful stereotypes that claim women are ‘natural care takers’ or even that women in leadership positions guarantees a feminist, or even a human rights approach.
Praise has been generated for Angela Merkel and her government’s extensive testing in Germany, Erna Solberg’s early lockdown and testing in Norway, Katrín Jakobsdóttir’s approach to the crisis including highlighting the impacts of the crisis on gender equality in Iceland, and Jacinda Arden’s wide and effective response in New Zealand.
However, the Covid-19 crisis does not exist in a vacuum. There are many ways in which the power structures that exist have led to, perpetuated, and exacerbated the crisis. From health care systems weakened by austerity measures and privatization unable to cope with the crisis, the burden of unpaid care work and lack of recognition and protection for low paid workers- previously considered ‘unskilled’ and now relied heavily upon to keep most countries functioning- to the use of surveillance, repression, punitive, criminalized, and militarized responses.
In different ways, some of these leaders have until this crisis, failed to truly address the status quo of structural inequalities, neoliberalism, imperialism, environmental degradation, and corporate power. In some instances, these leaders have had some of these things at the center of their policy. second, we must be cautious in our lauding of them as their approach to be something new and innovative, and not hesitate to continue to question their wider policy and position beyond the Covid-19 crisis.
Even those that are challenging the status quo in certain areas, are making slower progress or are problematic in addressing for example indigenous people’s rights,land rights and homelessness in New Zealand, the use of the Nordic model in Norway and Iceland and failure to recognize or uphold sex worker rights, criminalization of poverty through proposed anti begging laws in Norway and the approval of mining projects contributing and exarcebating environmental degradation and loss of indigenous communities’ territories, and a history of weak or problematic approaches to immigration, asylum and deportation.
Māori and Indigenous peoples elsewhere have long called for social and political transformation, including a broader approach to health that values social and cultural well-being of communities, rather than only the physical well-being of an individual.
South feminists, WoC and indigenous communities in the North, anti-racist movements, environmental defenders, peace and anti-war movements, disability rights movements, and anarchist movements, have a deep history of work, praxis, knowledge, and defending the commons, that has called for system change and justice. This must be acknowledged and closely listened to address this crisis, as well as the multiple climate, economic, and social crises we face globally. South feminist collectives, anti-racist movements, and indigenous groups are continuing to highlight the clear connections between the Covid-19 crisis and the wider issues of climate injustice, neoliberalism, unpaid care work, racism, xenophobia, militarism ,and corporate power, more broadly the system of patriarchy.
The approaches being used by some of these leaders’ to the crisis of mutual aid, resistance, alternative ways to address violations, community and collective care, is not a new concept designed by north leaders. It is in fact a deeply entrenched values system and praxis of South feminists, that transforms communities and ecosystems. The barriers that South feminists have faced for decades, are the systems of oppression that many of these north leaders are failing to address in their wider policy.
Feminist leaders, particularly in the north, must go further, and feminist movements need to continue to hold all leaders’ feet to the fire. Leaders that are committed to justice, must seek to dismantle systems of oppression and power, learning, upholding and acknowledging the decades of knowledge and approaches by South feminists - as the experts, the innovators, leaders, and changemakers - for this crisis, and the many that we will face in the future.
Simply responding to this current crisis ‘better’ than their male counterparts, will never be enough.