By Dr. Kathleen Mar
On April 15th, the German government announced plans for a step-wise re-opening of economic and social life after a 5-week Corona “lockdown.” In a first step, shops smaller than 800 square meters as well as car dealerships and bicycle shops have reopened under strict hygiene and anti-crowding conditions. In early May, schools will begin to re-open, with priority given to classes that need to graduate to the next level.
At a national level, this first roadmap included no mention of when day cares for not-yet-school-age children might be able to reopen, or how their parents should manage childcare on top of working. On April 16th, Berlin – the city I have called home for the past 8 years – announced a plan to resume normal childcare operations in August, nearly four months from now. Berlin’s plan was based on recommendations from the Leopoldina, the German Science Academy that has been advising the government on Covid-19.
Despite a large number of Covid-19 cases, Germany has fared well in this pandemic so far, especially when compared to its European neighbors such as Italy, Spain and France. The death toll has remained low, the health care system has fared well under the strain, and there has been a large amount of public support for the government’s actions. But with these first steps towards re-opening, I suddenly felt like the political priorities of my adopted country had been laid bare: first priority, special treatment for the auto industry; last priority, women and families. With the additional subtext that daycare is a luxury and that someone (read: the mother) would be home even as workplaces reopen, so that the children would be taken care of. I was furious.
In my research at the intersection of climate, health and politics I have begun to engage with the framework for gender-responsive climate action under the umbrella of UN Climate, including the recently agreed upon Gender Action Plan. In this context I found the criteria for gender-just solutions put together by the UNFCCC Women and Gender Constituency to be particularly helpful and enlightening, especially the following: a gender-just solution aims to alleviate and/or does not add additional burden to women’s workload. Keeping children at home while both parents are supposed to be working in “home office” is an additional burden for both fathers and mothers, but it affects women disproportionally. Worldwide, women already spend far more of their time doing unpaid care work than men; in the Covid-19 crisis there is already evidence, for example, that the productivity of academics has gone down for women but increased for men. For me the verdict was crystal clear: Germany’s Covid-19 response cannot be considered gender-just.
For the record: I understand that there are epidemiological reasons to conclude that the risk of re-opening a car dealership is lower than re-opening a Kindergarten, where children cannot be expected to wear face masks or maintain a distance of 1.5 meters. However, the complex and difficult task of managing a post-pandemic “re-opening” involves weighing social, economic, and psychological benefits and risks that go far beyond the risk of infection as the single criteria. I could not find a way around the conclusion that concern for gender equity either did not receive consideration or did not receive priority during the German Covid-response planning.
One possible reason for this: representation. As pointed out in an in an open letter by young scientists and in many media outlets, the expert committee of the Leopoldina that was tasked with coming up with recommendations for the German Covid-19 response consisted of 24 men and only two women, with an average age of 63.
Other countries have chosen different paths. In both Denmark and the Netherlands, schools and day cares are some of the first institutions to be re-opened, instead of the last. But if Germany has concluded that day care needs to remain closed to protect public health, there are other steps it could take to make its Covid-19 response more gender-just: one option, as suggested in this petition and taken up by the Green Party, would be to provide payments to affected parents that could be used to offset the costs of private (one-on-one) childcare. And this brings me to what I see as a distinctly positive feature of Germany’s evolving Covid-19 response: the openness to public debate.
I was far from the only one to recognize the gender inequities of the plan to keep day care closed for the next four months while reopening much of the rest of society; the topic was raised by many and covered widely by the media. The city of Berlin has changed its position somewhat, promising to come up with a plan for at least partial opening of day cares “significantly before August;” a country-wide concept for when and how to reopen child care does not yet exist.
I know that, in the grand scheme of things, I am very lucky to be living in Germany – every day and especially during this pandemic. But that doesn’t mean I can’t demand more from politics and society.
A friend of mine hypothesized that in times of crisis, the topic of gender equity simply doesn’t have primacy. I don’t know what sort of evidence there is to support or disprove this hunch, but it strikes me as potentially true and also dangerous, especially in times when it feels like one crisis is simply followed by the next.
It is also true that no matter what, no policy will ever please everyone – and women are not the only group prone to being overlooked. Nonetheless, in a wealthy and democratic society such as Germany, we should strive to live up to our own high standards in response to Covid-19 – and that includes our ideals of gender equity.
German politicians have gotten behind calls to make sure post-Covid investments and stimulus projects are in support of climate and sustainability goals, which I wholeheartedly support. Notably, the Green Climate Fund (GCF), to which Germany is significant donor, has a policy whereby all project proposals must include a gender expert and consider gender issues in their environmental and social impact assessment. Let’s do our best to practice what we preach and commit to gender equity in our national-level response to Covid-19, the climate crisis and beyond.