Person wearing mask looks out window. Image credit: Hedgehog Digital/Unsplash

On International Women’s Day, a year into this pandemic, Canada and the world face a major she-curity crisis. It extends beyond serious problems that are already well-documented, notably women’s exodus from paid labour markets and the reality of heightened abuse and violence at home.

The challenges I identify are political: they infect core public institutions and values. They reinforce and deepen long-standing patterns that disadvantaged women and girls long before the pandemic began.

This political crisis manifests itself along four main dimensions: in supra-national, national and sub-national structures as well as in civil society values.

First, the international actors who could have stopped this virus in its tracks proved ineffectual. An investigation led by former New Zealand prime minister Helen Clark and former Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf identifies the unwillingness of China to use more forceful, effective measures to limit the initial spread of COVID-19. Clark and Johnson Sirleaf condemn the World Health Organization’s (WHO) choice to wait to convene a meeting of experts until the third week of January 2020, and to delay declaring an emergency until the 30th of that month.

Their expert report explains why we as citizens feel unsafe and unclear as to whether global public institutions actually work the way they should.

Let’s remember that the WHO called upon highly respected women leaders not to make the initial, pivotal decisions that mattered but rather to evaluate in hindsight the screw-ups that ended much of life as we knew it.

Second, we see multiple shortfalls at the level of the nation-state. Canada’s federal government did some things right. Yet the country is now a world leader in the slow pace of vaccinations.

Vaccine rollout in Canada has been highly gendered, with white, male military leaders in charge of the distribution process at the federal level as well as in Ontario. In a country that by international standards has a very weak military, decisions by political leaders to appoint military men to highly visible roles in a public-health crisis deserve close scrutiny. At the most obvious level, treating the vaccine rollout as a bright lights job for military leaders occludes the reality that the bulk of in-person caring for Canadians is done by poorly paid women — often racialized immigrant women working in hospitals, nursing homes and private care settings.

Third, let’s look at sub-national governments. Large provinces with right-of-centre populist leaders — and here I’d highlight Ontario, Quebec and Alberta — seem to defer more to the demands of business interests than to larger social considerations. This past autumn, conservative leaders in Ontario seemed more intent on keeping bars and restaurants open than on preventing overloaded intensive care wards or ensuring children could go to school safely. In February 2021, the Ontario government opened restaurants, bars and gyms to professional hockey teams at the same time as the general public was banned from those facilities and most schools remained closed.

Fourth, consider civil society norms. A long-standing democratic convention held that public leaders would advance and defend public interests in a public emergency.

The current emergency reveals the Darwinian opposite of defending public interests. The general good of the democratic collective seems to be regularly eclipsed by large, powerful, often private interests. Big box retailers stay open while small stores — lots of them owned and operated by women entrepreneurs — are for the most part shuttered. Major league hockey teams get access to leisure and entertainment facilities that remain closed to everyone else. White military men are the heroes in the vaccine spotlight while the racialized women who treat Canada’s sick and elderly — most of them also women — remain in the shadows.

How can we address this political dimension of the she-curity crisis?

First, with respect to supra-national institutions, structures such as the WHO need an overhaul. This means having clear-headed, capable decision-makers in charge who prioritize commitments to science and human health.

Second, in terms of federal and provincial governments, the same rules apply. There exist no substitutes for competence, transparency and the ability to execute decisions. If the WHO can face the intense scrutiny of the expert panel, then so too can Canada’s institutions. For starters, our leaders should rethink their elevation of white male military leaders in what is ultimately a highly gendered and highly racialized civil society emergency.

Finally, when it comes to public values, trusting institutions and leaders requires that we hold them accountable — by asking the tough questions, showing our approval of what works, stating clearly what does not work and explaining why.

Speaking out early and often might sound like a small response to a daunting crisis. Yet it’s a crucial lever for demanding better.

Sylvia Bashevkin teaches political science at the University of Toronto.

Image credit: Hedgehog Digital/Unsplash