An Act of Care: Reframing global efforts to contain COVID-19 

This is a longer version of an opinion piece that originally appeared in the Hill Times.

By Mayssam D. Zaaroura (Women’s Rights Knowledge Specialist – Oxfam Canada) and Dr. Kirsten Van Houten (Global Partnerships Coordinator – KAIROS Canada). This op-ed was written in collaboration with members of the Women, Peace and Security Network – Canada.

We are waging a war, we are told. We are all in this war together. We have to fight this disease – look at how this country is winning this battle against COVID-19, this is how we flatten that curve, and here is how we will emerge victorious.

This militarized narrative is used to describe the COVID crisis: fighting on the frontlines. This militarization is not only evident in the language describing the crisis; it also shapes the response. 

Many governments, including in Canada, are adopting increasingly securitized language and approaches to enforce physical-distancing and restrict mobility of populations around the world, with some variations. In some parts of Canada, police have set up checkpoints to reduce non-essential trips between and within provinces. In more extreme cases, such as the Philippines, governments have given their militaries the authorization to shoot and kill anyone violating lockdowns. 

Jed Regala/Oxfam

These militarized responses have led to an increase of human rights abuses around the world. In the Philippines, 21 residents of the urban poor neighbourhood Sitio San Roque were arrested after protesting inadequate access to food due to their livelihoods being restricted by the lockdown in Luzon. There have been a number of similar events documented in India and elsewhere. The pandemic response has also led to a resurgence of armed violence as tensions rise in fragile and conflict-affected states. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, recent escalation of fighting has led to numerous civilian deaths, reported as being related to the pandemic. In Myanmar the military rejected calls for a global ceasefire during the pandemic, calling it unrealistic, increasing offensives against their own population, taking advantage of the global distraction of the pandemic. 

Finally, mobility restrictions imposed in some countries also pose a risk to human rights defenders seeking protection from violence perpetrated by states and non-state actors. In Colombia, the lockdown contributed to the assassination of a member of Organización Femenina Popular, one of several human rights defenders murdered within the broader context of state-sponsored and paramilitary violence. 

Driving this militarization is the continuation of weapons manufacturing while other industries shut down. In Italy and other European countries, weapons manufacturing plants have been kept open as “essential services” and while such operations have not been deemed essential in the United States, they have not been closed. Despite endorsing the UN’s call for a global ceasefire, such as in Yemen and Syria, the government of Canada recently announced its decision to resume approving weapon exports to Saudi Arabia, one of the world’s most heinous human rights abusers.  

Underlying these militarized responses is the narrative of war and rallying support for the battle of our lives and those of our fellow citizens: a militarization of the response to a global pandemic. Such responses are often housed within colonial and patriarchal narratives of militarized and toxic masculinity – whether they are adopted by men or women. They are accompanied by violence and social norms that oppress all populations, but particularly racialized groups including Black and Indigenous communities; women and gender diverse people and; people with disabilities; or, anyone who does not conform to a dominant masculine/feminine binary narrative.  

What accompanies this language is the normalization of a military, police, or security presence that is proving to be far from benign. As always, what accompanies war and conflict is a response that overshadows community needs and people’s lived realities, and barges in with a zero-sum game of win or lose at all costs. 

Sara Carpenter/Shutterstock

For this moment of collective pain, force and muscle are out of place. Especially force and muscle that are using this pandemic to instill a tyranny of security that criminalizes those who are already most marginalized. In some spaces it escalates the narrative of fear that leads to violence against those responding to the pandemic. The very same people protecting us from this virus and serving us during lockdown: workers in the healthcare and service industries. Workers in too-often underfunded and underappreciated sectors of care. As Arundhati Roy asks: “if it were not masks and gloves that its frontline soldiers needed, but guns, smart bombs, bunker busters, submarines, fighter jets and nuclear bombs, would there be a shortage?”  

We need to reframe our narrative and response to the COVID-19 pandemic. We need an alternative narrative to militarization and fear-based security – and consequently, an alternative political and socio-economic response to COVID-19 that takes into account the needs of the most vulnerable populations rather than the faceless collective.

This reframing must be feminist: rights-based, inclusive, non-violent, undertaken in the spirit of gender equality and racial justice. Amnesty International has noted that measures undertaken by governments in the name of protecting people from this disease must be “proportionate, time-bound, and that they are implemented with transparency and adequate oversight.” 

Our response to COVID-19 must be presented as an act of care as opposed to an act of war. It must recognize that women are at the forefront of the response, and ensure we have seats at decision-making tables and in positions of leadership. A response that acknowledges women’s continued work as human rights defenders throughout the pandemic and beyond, ranging from challenging militarism to providing humanitarian assistance. 

Rather than staying home to fight the virus, we stay home to care for ourselves and each other. The front line can be reframed as our communities. Let’s use a narrative and response steeped in care and compassion in the hope that when the pandemic ends, this period might be remembered as the world’s greatest collective effort towards positive peace and a more equitable world.

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