How to Run the COVID-19 Reopening Marathon - Part One: Race Preparation
by Dr. Nancy Reichman, CWC Research Director
Early this week Colorado Governor Jared Polis announced the state's newest upcoming "marathon:" reopening local businesses slowly. The race's staggered start is here is less than two weeks away. How long it will take to complete is anyone's guess.
Women and people of color have been on the frontline of the fight against COVID-19. How will we fare in the race to economic recovery? If history is our guide, we will start later and face more obstacles on our way to the finish, if we get there at all.
As they design the course and create the rules, race organizers must avoid the mistakes of the past and address the known asymmetries of the COVID-19 pandemic. Testing disparities, for example, might influence who can join the race and when. All of us must do what we can to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to join the race and reach the finish, however they are able.
"Economically speaking, outbreaks could have a disproportionately negative impact on women, who make up a large chunk of part-time and informal workers around the world," wrote health policy researcher Julia Smith for The New York Times. "Those kinds of jobs are also usually the first to get sliced in periods of economic uncertainty. And during outbreaks, when women have to give up work and income to stay home, they often find it harder to spring back after the crisis."
It's important to also note that this pandemic has a similarly disproportionate effect on people of color, who tend to occupy part-time or lower authority workplace positions more often than whites. With schools and day-care centers closed, these are the parents struggling to combine working for wages and childcare. They make tough decisions about dividing up the responsibility for caring for children and elders.
Will women — who, on average, earn 80 cents to each dollar earned by men — make a seemingly rational decision to forego their work for pay in order to stay home and teach their kids? Or, will partners, neighbors, and communities find new ways to support one another when the opportunity arises?
"In dual-income partnered households, one or both partners may need to officially move to part-time employment," wrote sociologist Yolande Strengers for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC). "However, this must be allowed for flexibility, with variability in hours possible, and fluid transitions between full and part-time arrangements as the situation unfolds."
This moment, tragic as it is for so many, offers an opportunity to step up. We've seen people get creative, for example, with their personalized protective equipment. And when it comes to COVID-19 testing, the Rockefeller Foundation rolled out a plan for the United States which would see up to 30 million people screened each week — a $100 billion effort.
"Yes, it's ambitious, but at this point we've got to do it," Dr. Michael Pellini, a Personalized Medicine Coalition board member who contributed to the plan, told CNBC. "We have to fix testing in this country to enable our workforce to be deployed once again."
Preparing for the Race
Successful marathoners know the importance of developing the mental fortitude to work through the physical challenges of the 26-mile footrace. Just imagining yourself doing the things that get you to the finish line is a key training strategy. How do we collectively imagine our race to a more equitable future?
Focusing our attention on the division of household labor might be one small step.
Right now women are disproportionately engaged in the cognitive labor (mental load) of managing the COVID-19 pandemic at home, all while balancing "working from home," which includes a whole host of personal and professional challenges. Women are taking on the conception and planning for everything related to homeschooling, managing and preparing food, snacks and screen time, arranging video conferences, organizing supplies, arranging for physical activity or communicating with teachers.
The gendered nature of cognitive labor has been a persistent and largely invisible feature of the contemporary household, with real consequences for mothers' sense of well-being and satisfaction. Can we expect women to continue carrying this load during the COVID-19 economic reopening marathon? Or, can we work together to imagine a more equitable division for managing the home?
Over the next several weeks the Colorado Women's College will explore how we prepare for Colorado's COVID-19 Reopening Marathon and, indeed, for the race to a more equitable future.
As we imagine new ways of getting beyond the pandemic to that future, we must remember that weathering a crisis means something different if you are in the midst of a category 3 hurricane or a catastrophic tsunami.
For some women, the call to shelter in place means that their once-visible cognitive labor is now visible. For them, these moments can be reserved for establishing new roles and habits to equally share the job of managing the household. Partners will need to make time for difficult conversations and household planning.
For others, the demands of managing a household in a pandemic are so crushing that the only choice is to evolve toward a less complicated and disrupted future. For these folks — many who do not have a partner to share their burdens — thinking creatively about how we can better weather the storm or merged work and family life is long overdue.
Paid sick days are an important policy step, for example. Family and medical leave, and support for navigating through the myriad programs intended to help are just some of the other ways we can think to ease the burden.
An equitable finish to the economic reopening "marathon," and for the races that will surely follow, requires that we imagine ourselves meeting the challenges of today with a clear vision for the future. We've got this!