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Feminism and Coronavirus: What Next?

Feminism has already warned that capitalism brutally expands the precariousness of the work necessary for social reproduction, work that falls mainly on women, and the acute contradiction between life and profit under this system. The pandemic confirms these diagnoses. So what do we do next?

Andrea D'Atri

April 29, 2020
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Luigi Morris

The health crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic overlaps with, and accelerates, a long-standing capitalist crisis. “The coronavirus,” as Matías Maiello points out in “Pandemic and Capitalism: The Two-Pronged Struggle of the Working Class,” “has shattered the precarious balance that had been dragging capitalism along worldwide amid tendencies to recession, new drivers of accumulation, growing geopolitical tensions, and a wide cycle of revolts.”

Perhaps as never before, it is clear that this this capitalist crisis is “simultaneously a crisis of economy, ecology, politics, and ‘care.’”1Cinzia Arruzza, Tithi Bhattacharya, and Nancy Fraser, Feminism for the 99 Percent: A Manifesto (London: Verso, 2019).

The coronavirus has revealed to millions how brutally the capitalist system subordinates social reproduction to the massive, incessant production of commodities, so that a few people can increase their profits by exploiting the labor of millions whose lives are increasingly precarious. Everywhere we see the flagrant signs that capitalism is sustained by profits generated through the exploitation of wage-earning labor, even when making profit is counterposed to taking care of people’s lives: the slow pace at which nonessential activity was brought to a halt in so many countries; the speed at which those measures are being lifted, despite the warnings of epidemiologists; and the financial bailouts of millionaires and their companies by states that cannot even figure out how to provide masks for health care personnel.2This contradiction between life and profit is crudely exposed in this health crisis, which, for the first time, is roiling the world’s richest and most developed countries, bringing to the centers of imperialism the nightmarish images that were once the exclusive domain of the dependent countries, which are subjected to the plundering of their natural resources and the overexploitation of their labor forces by European and American multinational corporations.

Feminization and the Dismantling of the “Front Line”

Decades of privatization and austerity have drained and depleted health systems, even in countries such as Spain, which boasted one of the best in the world.3According to the 2019 Medscape report “Economic Remuneration and Professional Satisfaction,” health professionals in the Spanish State since 2009 have been earning about 1,400 euros less a year than before the economic crisis that broke out in 2008. The report also notes, “Primary care doctors earn 14 percent less than specialists, and that there is a 19 percent wage gap for women in both categories.” “Six Questions and Seven Charts on Health Expenditures in Spain” explained that in 2016, in breach of European regulations, one in three Spanish public health workers had a temporary contract, and one in three those contracts lasted less than a week. From 2009 to 2014, 12,180 jobs were lost in the Public Health Service. And while the European average is five beds per 1,000 inhabitants, Spain has had only three since the implementation of the austerity plans that followed the global crisis more than a decade ago. The health care cuts are notably greater than the fall in GDP, especially in the areas of primary care and public health, which are least protected but that could contribute the most in times of crisis. With the exception of 2009, when spending on public health rose to cover the massive purchase of vaccines to deal with the influenza-A epidemic, the budget fell sharply. So, while the current crisis reveals the obvious importance of the health system for social reproduction, it also highlights that areas that fail to generate profits for the capitalists, such as prevention or primary care, are underfunded and those that do are privatized.

Women bear the brunt of this from every angle. For example, the privatization of the most profitable health care sectors creates more at-home, no-wage work for women because it is impossible to access these high-cost hospital services. Meanwhile, women make up the majority of the most precarious wageworkers in the public sector, where austerity plans have left a trail of unemployment and imposed flexible work conditions and a lack of inputs and resources — a situation only worsened by the pandemic.

War metaphors are being used everywhere to describe the fight against the coronavirus, but among the many differences with conventional wars, there is one that is all too often going unnoted: in this war, women — who at home are mainly responsible for social reproduction — are the majority or are at least a very large part of the front lines. This includes workers in health care, elder and dependent care, cleaning, the production and marketing of food and other basic commodities, and so on. And as Kim Moody writes in “How ‘Just-in-Time’ Capitalism Spread COVID-19,” “The majority of these workers are undocumented immigrants. Ironically or cynically, they have been declared essential workers” — which means the economy is relying on them to remain in their workplaces, where they are vulnerable to the virus.

According to data from medical associations and the Spanish National Institute of Statistics, women represent 49.77 percent of all medical specialties in the health services and 79 percent of nurses. These figures are not much different in other European countries, revealing that health care rests on the work — largely precarious, grueling, and carried out under far worse salary and budget conditions than a decade ago — of a huge “white army” of women, so named for the color of their “combat uniforms.”

Today, they are the ones who are beginning to demonstrate how capitalist irrationality acts in this health crisis. “We’re in front of the emergency room here … to demand protective personal equipment, ventilators and adequate safety protocol for health care workers on the front line. We formed this task force because we saw that the whole saying of, you know, ‘We’re all in this together,’ that [New York governor] Cuomo, Trump, and other politicians and even CEOs are claiming is totally bogus. We are the ones who have our bodies on the line. We are the ones who are putting our families at risk and ourselves at risk at our job,” says Tre Kwon, a nurse at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, interviewed by several television networks outside the hospital entrance.

“We are very grateful for all the praise we get, but we must tell society that it has sent us to war without weapons,” complains another nurse at the door of a Buenos Aires hospital. “We need health personnel to do tests. Please tell them that’s how it is,” she says into the camera for the news that goes live at prime time. And she concludes, “We are not heroes. We are precarious workers.”

A Spanish doctor warns the press, “Without what we need we get infected, and we keep getting it.” And she adds, “Until we have material for all the workers, and not just the health workers, the problem will continue.”

From one end of the map to the other, the desperate and urgent call for personal protective equipment (PPE) is repeated, but it is still missing or insufficient — even though it has been several weeks since the World Health Organization reported that the COVID-19 outbreak had become a pandemic. Yet employers and governments cannot respond to such a basic demand.

Unity in the Strike: “Do It for Us Too!”

When Italian workers called for the closure of nonessential factories and enterprises in a March 25 general strike, 400 nurses issued a statement denouncing the lack of protective equipment and the suspension of all their labor rights: “The time to strike is now! Health and safety above all! Although ours will be a symbolic strike, we ask you to strike — so that many will do it, and so they will do it for us as well!”4“The Appeal of 400 Health Workers: We are Falling Ill by the Thousands, We can’t strike, On March 25 You Must Strike Yourselves,” #scioperaperme, Unione Sindicale di Base, March 22, 2020.

The international health crisis makes it clearer than ever that without the unity of workers from different wage-earning sectors of social reproduction and production, we cannot adequately confront the capital-versus-life equation that capitalism imposes in its thirst for profit — and the chaos and inequality that it inflicts. Even with the tremendous and much-deserved social standing that the health sector has attained during the pandemic, it does not have the strength on its own to impose its basic demands.

On the streets of Harlem, Tre Kwon stands in front of the television cameras calling for something that goes beyond the nurses’ station, but that is now clearly indispensable even were all health care workers to get their PPE:

What’s really necessary … is that manufacturing industry needs to be nationalized and put under total public control — actually, democratic workers’ control. That would be the only rational way to respond to this crisis. GM — all these corporations are sitting around waiting for their [economic rescue] package from the federal government. … But ultimately, what is required is centralized, coordinated planning, but not under the hands of Trump. Trump is yet another billionaire boss bigot who’s also looking out for his own interests. So it really needs to be under the control of the public, the working class.

A truly anticapitalist feminism has a responsibility to point out that nurses in New York today are so indispensable that they are beginning to raise the need for workers’ control of the production of PPE, just like the workers in a textile cooperative in Argentina who restructured their workshop to make masks. But above all, the essential role women workers play in caring for life today gives them enormous authority to call not just on the population in general to support them, but especially on other wage-earning sectors to come to the aid of the population’s health, taking into their hands the struggle for other measures that go beyond the walls of the hospital: imposing health and hygiene committees made up of the workers themselves in every company, to guarantee that the virus does not continue to spread; demanding unemployed workers be brought in to increase the production of essential material, without reducing anyone’s wages; taking worker control of factories that close or lay off workers, to avoid job losses and more families falling into poverty; fighting for the nationalization of essential industries and services and for the restructuring of companies that produce nonessential goods, to put them at the service of the needs of the population in this pandemic. All this is part of a rational program of emergency measures that no government of the world’s capitalist democracies will be willing to take, because they are contrary to the interests of big business.

The unity of social reproduction workers and production workers is an indispensable weapon of struggle to confront capitalism, which has established its adversarial relationship to protect its own interests.

After decades in which corporations and governments have relocated production to less-developed countries while building up logistics, transport, and home delivery services in the major countries, the health crisis shows that nurses who need to protect their lives on the front lines of hospitals — be it in Madrid, New York, or Buenos Aires — depend on the work of textile workers in Beijing, for whom the pace of production has increased in the past few weeks.5Since March 1, China has exported about 4 billion masks and almost 40 million protective suits to 50 countries. And those precious commodities that should be protecting the lives of those who protect life today are circulating through an extensive international network of workers — mostly men — who are also demanding their rights as they expose themselves to contagion.

Just as decades of neoliberalism have reshaped the world with new supply chains that made the emergence of this pandemic possible — and future ones already predicted by scientists — they have also created new strategic positions for the working class, new points of vulnerability for capital on a global scale. Because of the quest for a cheaper labor force with no protections or rights, masks for the entire planet ended up being made in China. But even as the sewing machines dizzily increase the rhythms of their needle strokes, the masks will have to be loaded in containers, travel by ships, be unloaded at other ports and reloaded in trucks, stockpiled in warehouses, and distributed by freight until they reach the hands of Tre and her companions in New York. It is a chain in which thousands of workers contribute to guarantee the realization of capitalist profits, or interrupt them.

The masks, gowns, ventilators, intensive care beds, and even the hospitals themselves could be sewn, manufactured, and built if the working class took over the big companies in the garment industry, the multinationals in the automobile industry, and the giant armaments factories, restructuring them according to social needs while fighting the increased precariousness and unemployment of vast sectors of the population.

Some women on the front lines sent this message to their colleagues: “Do it for us.” Given their place in the capitalist system, they are not in a position today to withhold their care work to make their demands heard, but the social recognition they have gained strengthens and amplifies their voices before millions of wage earners, before their sisters in a working class that — in the last decades — has been feminized, and before the population whose lives depend on frontline workers’ self-sacrificing work.

There Is No Vacuum in Politics. There Is Class and Political Struggle.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos added $24 billion to his already immeasurable fortune in the first months of 2020. The confinement that has thrown millions of informal workers into misery, which has further sunk the sectors that depend on a subsistence economy, allowed him to exploit his workers more and increase his wealth. When we say, “Let the capitalists pay for the crisis,” that’s what we’re talking about: workers on the front lines shouldn’t lack masks while the world’s richest man amasses extraordinary additional profits.

But this must be imposed. The potential of the working class, increasingly feminized and more racialized than ever, to disrupt the functioning of the economy and affect capitalist profits, to establish alliances with other oppressed popular sectors, to build a new social order based on meeting the needs of the vast majority and not on the pursuit of profits for a parasitic minority class — this potential does not develop in a vacuum. It faces obstacles. In addition to confronting the bosses, in the struggle for our lives, the working class will have to get rid of the union bureaucracies, who accept the existence of capitalist exploitation and limit the fighting strength of the working class to negotiations over the rate of exploitation, but never to eliminate exploitation. These agents of the capitalists in the labor movement today are asking the rank and file to accept layoffs, precarious working conditions, and cuts to avoid greater evils; that is, they undermine the working class so the bosses’ schemes for saving their businesses can triumph, with the people ultimately having to pay.

But the working class will also have to confront the state, which belongs to those same capitalists and in whose service not only has a monopoly on force, but also has political parties that represent their interests. The women on the front lines who are demanding PPE in Rome and New York are not only facing the disastrous management of this health crisis by Donald Trump or Italian prime minister Giuseppe Conte. They will also find an independent path out from the influence of the reformists and neoreformists who use left-wing language as they offer to manage capitalism’s decay and haggle with big business for crumbs — all under the illusion that nothing will change once the pandemic is over. That is the role being played by Unidad Podemos, which is propping up the neoliberal PSOE as part of the Spanish State government. It is the same role Bernie Sanders has played, waging an election campaign that stirred tremendous popular support, but ultimately withdrawing to support Joe Biden, the establishment candidate — an apostle washing the feet of the imperialist Democratic Party. It’s the same disastrous role we saw the Syriza government play in Greece during the last great crisis of 2008.

Neither some sort of communitarianism, nor an egalitarian society, much less communism, awaits us as we emerge from this crisis — as if somehow everything would automatically lead to a brave new world. We are in the midst of a struggle, and there will be greater struggles to follow in the near future. What we do today will help determine whether there is a more favorable relationship of forces for us to win the fights of tomorrow.

Anticapitalist and socialist feminists are counting on the emergence of a larger collective, one that includes women on the front lines of the political and class struggle, to overthrow the capitalists, their governments, and their state. This is not a desire stemming from some kind of utopian hope that the crisis will lead in that direction. The coming attacks on the living and working conditions of millions of people this health crisis will bring are going to be imposed on working people and youth who were already been leading important struggles before the pandemic. These include the ongoing mobilizations against Sebastián Piñera’s neoliberal government in Chile; the brutal confrontations between Bolivia’s poor and the forces of the Jeanine Añez coup; the protests in Catalonia and Hong Kong for the right to self-determination; and the prolonged struggle against the precariousness of life the Yellow Vests in France waged for more than a year, occupying the streets of Paris and other cities before those same streets were emptied by a powerful general strike of transport workers and other sectors against Emmanuel Macron’s pension reform. And then there is the women’s movement that has been mobilizing massively, across the globe, in recent years.

Moreover, the working masses are already demonstrating their resistance to a return to “business as usual.” Strikers in the big auto factories and in the aeronautics industry have demanded paid leaves. Strikes by young people working in the precarious home delivery services have demanded protective equipment. There are symbolic protests by Italian nurses and rank-and-file organizations in New York City’s health care system. Workers at the fast-food chains protest over social media. The working class will not be willing to passively accept the coming attacks that are percolating in the heat of the current health crisis. And today we see, in the voices of some of the nurses and others workers who are risking their lives on the front lines to sustain the world, that the crisis is laying the groundwork for new ways of thinking.

If we aspire to a society in which inequality is reconciled, in which production and reproduction develop in harmony with nature, a society liberated from all the forms of exploitation and oppression that today bombard the great majority of people, it is not enough to wait for some spontaneous global insurrection to emerge in the heat of the present crisis or the crisis that will immediately follow it. We must prepare — now. If those of us who campaign for anticapitalist and socialist feminism do not intervene in this political struggle to help develop within it a revolutionary perspective, we will be impotent in the face of the tremendously challenging class-struggle confrontations that are approaching.

Anticapitalist feminism cannot be limited to declarations about how working women today have become, for the first time in history, nearly half the wage-earning class. Nor can it restrict itself to denouncing the fact that women are victims of the worst working conditions, wages, and patriarchal violence. Women are also those on the front lines today. It is women the world’s population applauds as heroes from their windows. These workers are beginning to tell their comrades that they need to join forces to win. It is time, then, for anticapitalist feminism to take up the task of promoting the organization of these sectors, with an independent program — one that opens up the perspective of defeating capitalism and imposing a new socialist order, in which bread and roses abound.

First published April 26 in Spanish in Contrapunto, the supplement to Izquierda Diario in the Spanish State.

Translation by Scott Cooper


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Andrea D'Atri

Andy is a leader of the Socialist Workers' Party (PTS) and the founder of the women's group Pan y Rosas (Bread and Roses) in Argentina. She is author of the book Bread and Roses: Gender and Class Under Capitalism, which has been published in Argentina, Venezuela, Brazil, Mexico, Spain, Italy, France, and Germany. An English edition is now available from Pluto Press.

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