COVID-19 and rising inequalities: the importance of intersectional approaches


Dr. Heather MacRae, Dept. of Politics, York University

In the early days of the global pandemic, COVID-19 was sometimes referred to as the "great equalizer". The virus, it was believed, would not discriminate by gender, race, class, sexuality or ethnicity. We were all equally vulnerable. We were all "in it together". More than six months later, it has become clear that the virus does discriminate. It hits hardest in those areas where systemic inequalities already exist, exacerbating these inequalities and exacting a larger toll on some communities than others. Black people, minority ethnicities, refugees and individuals with disabilities are among those disproportionately affected by the illness. The lockdown measures have similarly had unequal consequences: women, precarious workers, lower income families, the homeless, and otherwise already vulnerable populations have been unduly disadvantaged by government measures to curb the spread of the virus. Across the European Union, the pandemic has exposed the depth of social, structural and systemic inequalities within social and political systems. Without targeted measures, we may even see a reversal of some of the progress that the European Union has been made towards more equality over the past few decades.

Rising inequalities


In Europe, the link between minority populations and COVID cases has not been as well documented as it has in North America. This is partly the result of the fact that many states, including France, refuse to collect race-based data. Nonetheless, there is evidence that some populations are more vulnerable than others. The correlation between the disease and any single factor is not linear, rather there is a complex set of connections across lines of age, gender, class and ethnicity. Among the working-age population, women are more likely to be infected with COVID-19 than men. In contrast, among retired individuals, men are more affected than women. In the UK, researchers have shown that Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic individuals (BAME) account for roughly 1/3 of the patients admitted to critical care units with acute COVID-19 symptoms, although they make up approximately 13% of the British population. Black and Asian individuals are about twice as likely to die of COVID-19 complications than white people, and in these populations, men have higher rates of infection and mortality than women. Similar trends are apparent in Sweden and Germany: one borough in Stockholm with a particularly high immigrant population, shows infection rates nearly 3 times that of the city as a whole. We may never know the exact extent to which minority communities have been hit, because neither the EU, nor most of the member states consistently collect hospitalization and health data by ethnicity. Without accurate data, it is impossible to see trends and develop policy accordingly.


We know that the inequalities resulting from the pandemic extend far beyond the illness itself. For many individuals and communities, the government measures to curb the spread of the virus have had multi-layered and complex implications. Orders to "stay at home" assume that everyone has a home, and that this home is a safe place. Individuals facing mental health crises and those with special needs found that the shut-down of services increased the level of crisis that they and their families faced. Responsibility for childcare as schools closed fell disproportionately on women, but we must be mindful of the fact that care responsibilities were not evenly distributed even within this category. Single mothers, those in precarious employment, frontline workers and those working in domestic care are more affected than many. Some, unable to access childcare and unable to work from home, were forced to quit their jobs. Children in low income, migrant families faced more difficulties accessing online learning, thus placing them at an increased risk of falling behind others in their academic cohort. In many communities, the disadvantages generated by the pandemic risk being carried forward for years or even decades.


These are some examples of how overarching structures perpetually privilege some, at the expense of others. Even as the global pandemic has led to extensive government supports and thus the "suspension" of some aspects of the neo-liberal capitalism system, the structures that support the system, and the corresponding inequalities are very much still in place. We know that the pandemic did not create these inequalities; they have existed for decades. But the pandemic has laid bare the depth of these inequalities, and the ways in which they are inter-related. Several European networks and agencies, including Equinet (the European network of equality bodies) and the European Disability Forum have drawn attention to the difficulties, but also the opportunities arising from the pandemic. Both have stressed the importance of an intersectional approach. But, what would this look like in practice and what would it add to the EU's recovery efforts?


The value of an intersectional approach


First coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw, intersectionality is a way of thinking about the relationship between individual identities, power and social structures. Everyone experiences advantages and disadvantages through the social and structural systems and their interactions, but interwoven categories of disadvantage can reinforce oppression for some. Overarching systems like capitalism, neo-liberalism, racism and patriarchy all produce byproducts that discriminate against some more than others. Intersectional approaches help to bring these experiences and the realities of these systems to the fore. However, there is a general reluctance in Europe to acknowledge the importance of race and the reality of racism, and as a result, states fail to generate the necessary information to adequately combat discrimination in a systemic manner[1]. An intersectional approach can help to counter that.


What would intersectionality, as an approach and a policy tool look like in terms of the EU's pandemic responses? In my view, there are at least three components to integrating an intersectional approach into EU policy making. Doing so would improve the EU's economic and social recovery by addressing key issues of social justice. It will also set a blueprint for future socially just crisis responses.


First, there needs to be increased community input, particularly from the most marginalized communities. In many cases, these communities are represented by umbrella organizations in Brussels. Often these organizations speak on behalf of their community as a whole (i.e. women, migrant, persons with disabilities, Roma) and are reluctant to advocate for specific communities within their organizations (i.e. migrants with disabilities). Their singular focus tends to reinforce the mainstreaming approach that is at odds with the principles of multiple forms of discrimination. When umbrella groups increasingly acknowledge the overlap in their communities' intersectional identities will be more easily accepted as the norm.


Second, the European Union needs to collect reliable data highlighting race, ethnicity, age, disability and other forms of marginalization. The data will allow the institutions at local, national and European levels to create targeted and clear policy interventions. These interventions would support the overall European goal of social inclusion as outlined in a variety of different strategic plans.


Third, the European Union needs to apply an intersectional lens to the upcoming budget and financial recovery plans. These measures must be subject to gender+ budgeting strategies that can challenge some long-held assumptions and beliefs. For example, the current recovery package aims to support those sectors that have been hardest hit by the pandemic. Some have suggested that aspects of the funding are biased towards male dominated sectors. This is in stark contrast to the Commission's commitment in its 2030 Sustainable Development Goals and the Green Deal announced in 2019, in which von der Leyen vowed that the EU's economic and sustainability goals would "not leave anyone behind". The only way to ensure this equitable outcome is through intersectionality. This might, for example lead decision-makers to re-orient policy strategies around social categories rather than economic/industrial sectors in order to assess which area and individuals are most in need of support and the most at risk under current conditions.


Moving Forward


For over a decade, the European Union has been in a state of perpetual crisis. All too frequently, policies have been adopted under extreme pressure, and with a focus on rapid responses. This form of policy making reinforces aspects of the status quo, which in turn reinforce the existing structures of inequality and oppression. If the European Union is to live up to its constitutional requirement to equality, and seeks a recovery strategy that will benefit all Europeans, then the Union must entrench an intersectional approach into analysis and policy.

[1] Wadzanai Motsi-Khatai with Mirian Aced "Why intersectionality is relevant for a fairer Europe" (July 27, 2020) https://equineteurope.org/2020/why-intersectionality-is-relevant-for-a-fairer-europe/ accessed August 28, 2020.

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