Last month, a small collection of islands in Hawaii made history.
In a vote at its local government office on a Friday afternoon, Maui County became the first place in the world to explicitly commit to involving and prioritising women and gender equality in its Covid-19 recovery plan.
“I’ve never heard the word feminist over and over again – in such a positive way – at this level before,” says Khara Jabola-Carolus, executive director of Hawaii’s State Commission on the Status of Women. “It was surreal.”
There have been calls across the world, often at the highest levels, for a gender responsive approach to the pandemic.
Two weeks ago, philanthropist Melinda Gates warned that ignoring the effects of Covid-19 on women could cost the world $5trn.
“We get recovery if we get equality,” she said.
However, so far at least, finding these calls translated into action has been more difficult.
In Germany, Katrin Göring-Eckardt of the opposition Green Party – currently second in the polls – described the plan as a “man’s thing” and complained the word “women” didn’t occur in it once.
For Dr Clare Wenham, assistant professor in global health policy at the London School of Economics, that’s not particularly surprising. “No-one thinks about it,” she says. “I think we’re missing a trick but I don’t think it’s because we are actively not doing it – it’s just because we don’t think about it, and that’s partly down to representation, how many women are sitting at the table.”
Both voted to do so unanimously, and have already started using it as a guide for where to allocate their share of federal recovery money. A third county is voting to do the same soon. The state is also working on a universal basic income bill, with a feminist framing, one of the key policies in the document.
Ms. Jabola-Carolus, whose commission wrote the paper alongside grassroots organisations, is thrilled.
“Everybody is committed to it, which is unbelievable,” she says. “Our proposition sees this moment for what it is: an opportunity, and we have to bring the fight too. I hate to use militaristic language, but this is a battle, and we have to fight and understand that this is a big moment.”
The paper would be seen in many circles as radical – and in other circles as sensible and overdue. It combines both a vision of the future and concrete policy points. As well as a universal basic income, it also proposes investing in social infrastructure – childcare, education and health – rather than more traditional infrastructure projects, in order to boost the economy.
“Studies have shown that investing public funds in childcare and elder care services is more effective in reducing public deficits and debt than austerity policies and boosts employment, earnings, economic growth and fosters gender equality,” the paper argues.
As such, it proposes universal free childcare and long-term elder care, with fair wages for those in the sector, relieving women of an often unpaid role that is still often taken by them even in couples where both partners work. It also argues for health coverage for migrants, a living wage for cleaning staff, and a nearly $25 an hour minimum wage for single mothers, among other policies that focus not just on gender but racial inequalities.
“There’s a crisis of sexism that is perpetuated by our economy and this is an opportunity to structurally change that,” said Ms Jabola-Carolus.
Dr. Rosemary Morgan, of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School for Public Health, is the co-lead of the Gender and Covid-19 project, alongside LSE’s Dr Wenham.
Along with other academics, they have been gathering evidence of how the pandemic has impacted women – because all the evidence suggests it has hit women very hard in different ways across the globe – and looking at how to draw up gender-responsive recovery plans for the future.
“Hawaii really started it,” she says. There are some positive signs in Canada, where the University of Toronto put out its own feminist recovery plan this week, and parts of India, too, but more evidence is needed, she says.
“It’s actually putting these issues on paper and getting political support, and we will see what comes of that,” she says.
But to ignore the issue, or let the calls go unheeded, would be a huge waste, experts warn.