A feminist response to Corona and the crisis of capitalism

All around the world, people are profoundly affected by the pandemic and intensified restrictions on everyday life. Looking at the closure of institutions, emergency shelters, the breakdown of educational and care structures, the introduction of short-time work and increased layoffs, the monitoring of public life, enforced isolation and the closure of borders, the contradictions of capitalism become clear. This state of emergency is particularly affecting those people who have already been marginalised by the current system before[1]. Thus, it is in this very situation that our position as feminist / women* strike collective becomes more accentuated. It is due to the long-standing focus on profit, austerity politics, individualism and devaluation of care-work that the Corona virus is hitting the world with maximum force. In the end, it is precisely because of a neglected health care system that we have to stay at home and that many basic rights are now restricted.

The feminist / women* strike collective thus calls for finding common forms of solidarity and resistance in order to establish considerate action, equal rights for all and radical feminist change. Even though we might be physically apart, we strive for a response that is collective, emphasises international collaboration and works towards a fairer world.


From being invisible to being system-relevant


“Our work is worth a mint – without us, everything stands still.” Today, the past year’s strike slogan is more relevant than ever. If women*, trans*, inter* and gender queer* people (hereafter abbreviated with the German-speaking shortcut FTIQ*)[2] would stop working now, the present society would be at its end. Many FTIQ* work in professions where home office is not possible – they cannot afford the hashtag #stayathome. Even workers who belong to the defined risk group are forced to continue working. At the same time, care and educational institutions are closed for almost everyone and the children suddenly have to be looked after full-time at home. How does society show solidarity with a health care worker who, in addition to her paid work, looks after her children, takes on educational tasks, cares for one parent and at the same time does domestic work?


What happens if she falls ill with COVID19 herself? What kind of support can a sans-papier (person who is undocumented by authorithies) cleaning worker count on when she loses her job and lacks the money to buy food, on top of living in a state of acute fear of being suddenly deported? Where is the support for sex workers who are threatened by poverty and homelessness due to the income loss? What is the situation for the cashier, working all day and being afraid of infecting people with the deadly virus, while at the same time not being able to afford the tablet computer for her children required for online teaching? What is the value of all of her indispensable work?


The care crisis affects us altogether


The impending collapse of the healthcare system is a scenario that came very suddenly – but not unexpectedly. It’s a badly calculated risk, carried out on the backs of marginalised people. It is little surprise, that in many countries health care systems were on the brink of collapsing. Feminists have long warned against treating care and health as a commodity, “tightening the belt” and making care “more efficient”. Unfortunately, these practices have become normalized over the past 30 years. It is through the Corona situation that eventually makes us understand and feel the effects of long-running budget cuts in health care systems.


Most care work is conducted by FTIQ*, and it is care work that is systemically underpaid as well: In nursing care, in the hospital, at Spitex (Swiss word for home care) in old people’s and nursing homes, in cleaning, day-care centres and in the kindergarten. In addition to this, also in the private context of the family, this type of work is usually carried out by FTIQ*, which puts them under multiple strains[3]. Obsolete gender roles, the gender pay gap and precarious forms of employment structurally penalize FTIQ*. This could now become even more acute since these measures push some of them back into small family structures (and make other family models impossible) if they have to take over childcare because of the lower salary, which requires them to cut back.


Suddenly, these „being system-relevant“ (in German so called system-relevant), self-sacrificing workers* are put at centre stage of the public discourse, being applauded from balconies and overwhelmed with gratitude. Yet, this doesn’t sideline our pressing question: Why is this “ system-relevant” work paid the worst – or nothing at all? Why is still most of this work done by FTIQ*? Surely, applauding is a nice gesture – but this doesn’t translate into better salaries alone. Particularly, if during this public applause employment relations are further tightened. This is also the case for caregivers who are now supposed to look after up to 40 children on their own for the same miserable wage. The fact that labour laws such as maximum working hours and necessary resting periods for hospital workers were overruled clearly demonstrates the extent to which these “ system relevant” workers are still treated as second-class. It is scandalous that the consequences of irresponsible decisions are shifted onto those (mainly FTIQ*) that are already bearing the brunt.


The virus exposes and exacerbates power relations and their contradictions: it is not the CEOs, bankers, real estate owners, pharmaceutical manufacturers or technology entrepreneurs who keep our society operating – but the invisible care workers and the strategically un(der)paid workers in retail and logistics. And yet the latter will be the main victims of the crisis, whereas the former will continue to “take care” of their luxury problems. And this is exactly the problem.


Forgotten risk groups


People who are particularly at risk from corona due to age or previous diseases must be protected without question. However, the definition of “risk group” is quite limited in practice. Often it is hidden from view that there are many more people exposed to other deadly risks that are even more threatened by the virus. For many, it is not possible to stay at home – either because they do not have a home, it is suffocating or poses other dangers, particularly in the case of domestic violence.


Marginalized people – whether they are over 60 years old or suffering from other diseases –  are now being dropped: people at borders, in deportation prisons and asylum camps who have neither access to water nor medications and who are now exposed to the virus. Due to visiting bans, people imprisoned in confined spaces are more isolated and thus exposed to a greater risk of infection. In contrast to other countries, in Switzerland not even prisoners belonging to the risk-group are allowed to interrupt their detention – an interruption that could save lives. What is more, places for social counselling and crisis interventions that have long been subject to rounds of austerity politics are now overstretched with work and are limited in what they can do. Therefore, homeless people are faced with overcrowded emergency shelters and they are confronted with unwelcoming people who take “social distance” word-for-word and totally reject them. Many people are not aware that people with disabilities are also among the risk group. They are afraid that their carers will be pulled away to hospitals and that their health needs will be put on hold. It becomes clear how existing forms of oppression are about to be reproduced and intensified.


The call for solidarity – the mantra of many governments in the world – is coming to its limits. If we look closely, their motto is “solidarity for the chosen ones”. Even now, solidarity does not begin with staying at home and certainly does not stop at applauding. The shutting down of national borders demonstrates that there is neither solidarity for neighbouring countries nor for the Global South. Not a single European country has responded to Italy’s call for help; uncompassionately accepting the deaths of thousands of people. Since colonial times, the privileged position of countries like Switzerland is grounded on structural exploitation and global power inequalities. For this reason, it is to be expected that the Global South is affected even more intensely. The state-demanded solidarity is an empty promise, a presumptuous demand for all those who are marginalized and un(der)paid. Capitalist structures are essentially without solidarity.



When #stayathome means sexist violence


For FTIQ*, adolescents and children the quarantine proves to be particularly dangerous. It has been proven that domestic violence during quarantine in China has tripled, which will also increase the number of femicides (murder of FTIQ*). The situation is alarming worldwide – the inadequate measures even more so. Even before Corona, women’s shelters* in Switzerland had already drawn attention to their lack of space and have been ignored for years. As a result of lacking funds and increased violence, women’s* shelters are overstretched, closed for the time being due to the quarantine, and therefore not able to protect women* who are acutely threatened. While the economy is, of course, financially supported, women’s* shelters and thus the lives of vulnerable FTIQ* are not.


The lockdown directly influences the right of self-determination of all FTIQ* over their own bodies. The confinement of space reinforces paternalistic controls, so that FTIQ* experience more suppression and violence from their partner or father, for example, when they try (unnoticed) to have an abortion. This is difficult anyway because of the time limit and the required compulsory appointments, when some of the clinics currently doing abortions have material shortages or are closed due to the corona virus. The situation is getting worse since due to an increase in sexual violence the demand for abortion increases as well. Furthermore, access to contraceptives is not always guaranteed. For example, many clinics no longer insert coils because this does not count as an urgent procedure. Condoms have been sold out for a long time. It is to be feared that there will be an increase in the use of unsafe abortion methods, which can have life-threatening consequences. On this occasion, some conservative states in the USA have “postponed” interventions for an undefined period of time. However, abortions cannot simply be postponed, with the result that the feminist right to physical self-determination is almost completely suspended. Forcing FTIQ* to remain pregnant is brutal state violence and leads to extreme psychological suffering. Violence is also experienced by people whose treatments are cut back due to crumbling health care systems – for instance Trans* people who are in transition and whose hormone treatments or operation dates are postponed.


The mental stress that affects everyone is not sufficiently dealt with. For instance, people who suffer from anxieties or suicidal tendencies, or people who can’t do psychotherapy because of the lockdown are particularly suffering during this crisis. Isolation means psychological violence for many, and it causes negative effects for mental health that are commonly underestimated. The expected increase in new registrations during and after the crisis will extend waiting times for a place at the therapist* or in a clinic – the reasons for this is that even there, budgets have been cut for years.


Profiting on the risk


The 2008 financial crisis was passed on as a debt crisis to the lives of workers: whether health or housing, everything became more expensive. In turn, working conditions and basic services deteriorated. Countries like Spain or Italy are right now brutally experiencing the consequences of several rounds of austerity politics: people passed away because not enough respirators had been produced beforehand. Medical staff have to make decisions on which patients they keep on supporting and which ones to let die. These practices derived from military medicine (triage) leads to social selection, which in turn affects marginalized people in particular: people with disabilities, people living in poverty, the homeless, elderly and racialized[4] people.


It is the predominantly female* hospital staff that have to pay for this economic mismanagement, in addition to the extra work they need to do during these days. Both them and the relatives of those passing away need to live with these traumatizing experiences. Conservative politicians and economists are in charge for this disaster because for years they have been prioritizing profit over human lives. In capitalism, financial speculation on the risk of a crisis is common practice!


Little is said about the causes of epidemics and their links to neo-colonial[5] and capitalist modes of production. Worldwide industrialization, unregulated agriculture and mass livestock farming destroy resilient ecosystems. This enables the emergence of viruses that mutate more often due to confined working and living conditions. In short, if we return to “normality” and carry on as we did before, the next epidemic is around the corner in the foreseeable future.


Meanwhile, those who are doing well seem to be rather unconcerned, whether in the real estate market, in the financial sector or the insurance sector. Those that have become rich as a result of common exploitative processes intrinsic to capitalism (or: the 1 %), will not be affected by the crisis either. Instead, they will benefit from it. The banks will be the main beneficiaries of the 500 million-Swiss franc package of economic aid provided by the canton of Zurich. Although they hand out loans, the canton backs 85% of them and many companies will most likely not be able to repay their loans. In a similar vein, reinsurers such as Swiss Re (turnover USD 33 billion) are speculating on making profit via this catastrophe. The “normality” is exploitative and unequal. The current situation clearly highlights that exploitation is happening along racist, gendered and class-specific dimensions. We can’t return to normality, because it is this normality that proves to be so problematic.


Physical distance is turned into social resistance


This crisis allows us to understand that the world we live in needs to change. We call on all women*, trans*, inter* and genderqueer people: Let’s express our frustration! Let’s hold on to our existing structures of resistance in order to make them stronger. Capitalism, exploitation, sexist and patriarchal structures, racist exclusion and environmental destruction are politically produced and desired. Yet, these structures can be overturned by making them visible and by building up political pressure and resistance.


Therefore, our struggles and convictions are more urgent than ever: it is through care and benevolence, solidarity and mutual support – not the “invisible hand” of the market – that our society is sustained and strengthened. The fact that un(der)paid work is crucially relevant for this system has become widely acknowledged. For instance, some employees such as the University of Zurich and food store chain Coop have already declared that childcare at home is recognised as working time and thus is remunerated as such. We demand that this practice is implemented for all employees and that this practice not just stops with the end of Corona but is to be continued in the future. For this to happen we simply need more political willingness.


As part of the measures against corona, state controls in public spaces are being extended. An atmosphere of fear is the breeding ground for state repression and increased police violence, including racial profiling[6]. The extent to which Corona reveals and reinforces racism is also echoed in the way how people believed to be of Asian origin are blamed for spreading the virus. The problem is neither China nor Corona – it is a form of global, nationally shaped capitalism and its racist and patriarchal mechanisms! We reject positions such as the slogan propagated by the Federal Office of Health (BAG) “This is how we protect ourselves #soschützenwiruns” because these positions are nationalist and excluding. What is important is a serious sense of international solidarity – as urgently as it is for Rojava, the self-governing territory in the north-east of Syria, which continues to be bombed by Turkey and militias and does not have adequate medical care either.


It is through these measures and the fundamental lack of social care that our social interactions and relationships are jeopardized – the interpersonal, personal and intimate. Capitalism is relentless in its attempts to individualize society even more – but in recent years emancipatory movements have created broad networks everywhere. Let us unite our struggles! Let us fight together against layoffs, bad working conditions, violence and repression. Let’s create support structures in the neighbourhood and beyond. Let’s consolidate social connections despite physical distance: Let’s use existing forms of organisation and new possibilities of digital networking, let’s share knowledge and skills. Let us remain vigilant and alerted, let us learn from the experiences of many, let us listen to each other. For a strong feminist practice!


FTIQ* all over the world are defending themselves and fighting for a future of solidarity: workers* at supermarket Migros Cornavin in Geneva, who were directly exposed to health risks, have successfully stopped working. In Zurich, the Ni Una Menos group continues its protest against femicides even during isolation. In Chile, millions of feminists* are protesting on their balconies against the patriarchal, neoliberal regime. Our comrades* in Italy call for daily feminist struggle using the hashtag #IORESTOACASAMA (#ISTAYATHOMEBUT).


As a feminist / women*strike collective, we establish links with social movements that are pulling in the same direction and develop common perspectives in order to move beyond the pandemic of capitalism into a feminist future in solidarity.


FTIQ*, join the intersectional feminist movement!


Let’s get connected:


Homepage:                frauenstreikzuerich.ch

Facebook:                  www.facebook.com/frauenstreikenzh/

Instagram:                  feministischerstreik_zh

Twitter:                       twitter.com/@frauenstreikZ


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[1] “Marginalisation“ is defined as the discrimination and displacement of individuals and groups to the margins of society.

[2] The asterisk indicates that gender categories are socially constructed and that all forms of identity and lifestyles are considered.

[3] Official statistics and some feminist discourses run along binary gender concepts. This means that exploitative structures in their gendered dimensions are completely invisibilized with regard to FTIQ*. From this perspective, care work is mainly done by women*, yet also trans*-women*, inter* and genderqueer persons are affected. (“Gendering” refers to the process of creating social differences based on the attribution of stereotypical gender roles.).

[4] “Racialisation” refers to stereotyping and valuing people on the grounds of perceivable and non-perceivable characteristics (e.g. skin colour or religion). Racism and racialization are closely connected. This order of power affects all areas of life and relationships (economic, political, social) and leads to white people being globally privileged.

[5] “Neo-colonial” refers to the fact that even after the end of formal colonialism, exploitation is still affecting the Global South, for instance, by unfair trade relations instituted through countries of the Global North.

[6] “Racial profiling” refers to the discriminatory practice by law enforcement officials of targeting individuals for suspicion of crime based on the individual’s race, ethnicity or national origin.


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