Thulasizwe Mkhabela. Photo: Supplied
Thulasizwe Mkhabela. Photo: Supplied

Gender inequalities and the effect of Covid-19 on food systems

By Opinion Time of article published Jul 28, 2020

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By Thulasizwe Mkhabela

JOHANNESBURG - The significant impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and the resultant national policies for managing the virus, such as travel restrictions, home quarantine, non-essential business and school closures, and social distancing have undoubtedly led to major disruptions in daily life, often blurring the distinction between the public-private spheres.

Many people, and disproportionately women, are simultaneously responsible for home schooling, working, supporting the elderly and caring for the sick. Intra-household communications have intensified and have seen an accompanying increase in incidences of domestic violence.

Food systems have experienced similar disruptions from Covid-19, and are known to have gender and inequality dimensions. It is prudent to expect that reoccurring shocks related to pandemics with similar policy responses are likely to occur for years to come, thus viewing the challenge through a gender and inequalities lens allows for critical examination of how the virus impact people differently. It is apparent that a better perspective on the pandemic is “life with Covid-19” rather than “life after Covid-19”.

The current pandemic has intensified and made visible the “invisible” structural inequities in our food systems. Basic food shortages, price increases and the precariousness of jobs in the food and service sector such as restaurants, pubs, food courts and fast-food outlets, itinerant food vending, farmers’ markets, and artisanal food stall pop-ups will affect both men and women, of all ages and backgrounds across the world.

However, women and black groups are faring worse. The pandemic is magnifying the disparities in local food environments faced by different social classes, with gender intersecting with race, ethnicity, immigration status, disability, age, and other dimensions of social differences. Focusing on food systems reveals the interdependence between the different regions of the world along the food value chain.

The work performed by women, and predominately black groups, in food systems puts them at a higher risk of exposure to SARS-CoV-2, the virus strain causing Covid-19. In South Africa, women make up more than 55 percent of the food and accommodation sector. People from black and immigrant groups in South Africa are also overrepresented in public-facing roles in the food sector, increasing their exposure to the virus.

Compliance with social distancing measures is more challenging in poorer areas with higher population densities. This is evident in South African townships and informal settlements. In Southern Africa, the risk is even greater for low-income and working-class women, as mobility restrictions mean that carrying out productive and reproductive tasks becomes riskier.

For example, in Southern Africa women make up most of informal food traders. As lockdowns are enforced, and with no other means to support themselves, they will need to continue to sell food. While this will help food availability in the short term, they are risking not only heightened exposure to the virus and fewer customers, but also repercussions of not following the law thus incurring fines, abuse, violence – often having their goods confiscated.

Women and other vulnerable groups, have little access to protections and safety nets when engaged in casual work contracts and low pay employment in agricultural and food sectors. Workers have limited coping capacity to deal with potential income loss. Their access to food and healthcare is adversely impacted, especially where provision of public services is minimal or non-existent.

Food processing plant closures and panic buying have led to food shortages and price increases, intensifying the financial shock for vulnerable groups. The time burden that arises because of constrained food availability and access, directly limits the chance for rest and recuperation, which is essential for maintaining mental and physical health.

The pandemic makes visible the socio-economic and gender disparities at household level, highlighting paid and unpaid caregiving work including cleaning, cooking and childcare, that sustain or reproduce the work force – known as ‘reproductive labour’. Work-from-home and quarantine have placed people in closer proximity to the productive and reproductive spheres within households.

The social and mental impacts of stay-at-home measures are more severely felt by people without permanent shelter, or in cramped living conditions with little means to cook and store perishable foods. The interplay between class, household composition, socio-economic and migration status will shape the severity of direct and indirect impacts of social-distancing measures.

In addition, reproductive work outsourced to child carers, cleaners, and medical care assistants has been disrupted. Workers in food preparation and delivery of wider food supply chains, who are often low skilled and low-paid, are becoming recognised for their continued efforts to stock supermarket shelves, deliver meals and groceries during the pandemic. As reproductive work has intensified within the household, the pandemic has also revealed the essential nature of workers in food systems.

Farmers and workers along the food chain are experiencing severe constraints under Covid-19 protection measures. Harvest workers labour side-by-side and often migrate long distances. This puts them at risk of exposure to the virus if they continue working, or of losing their livelihoods if they stop.

As production slows, retail workers, who are mainly women, will also be affected. In the fishing industry, for example, the Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that women represent 60 percent of seafood traders and retailers and have little protection in contrast to the formal seafood sector where office workers, who are mainly men, are protected by full-time work contracts.

Covid-19 has drawn the attention of the public to social reproduction, and our socio-economic reliance on low-paid and unpaid labour, performed predominantly by women and other vulnerable groups. At the same time, it is important that women and black groups be not presented only as victims, but as leaders and change makers.

Policies related to Covid-19 have also challenged gender norms in food systems and the reproductive sphere. For example, in Malaysia and Peru, policies that limit mobility led to men undertaking care work such as grocery shopping. However, as Covid-19 experiences have demonstrated the impact of policy on social behaviour, it shows an opportunity for policy to impact challenging punitive gender and racialised roles above the ‘invisibilisation’ of private and informal spheres in food systems and beyond.

There is need for research, policy and community-response efforts to key areas such as linking food systems thinking to the care and natural resource economies and the labour that supports it. This will require working with smallholder farmers, women’s rights groups and environmental campaigns the world over. Policy responses should focus on challenging gender roles, labour rights, social justice and equality and improving access to goods and services, through the introduction of safety nets, regulation, and investment in public services is another area of focus. Reviewing new policies for their impact on gender and vulnerable groups and opportunities for positive transformation should be paramount research and policy areas. For example:

• Assess available livelihood alternatives and cultural importance regarding the supply and consumption of specific foods;

• Increase professionalisation and formalisation of work in health and safety standards in food systems;

• Involve women and vulnerable group leaders who are leading successful initiatives for sanitation, health and food safety work, and create solidarity through the sectors.

Dr Thulasizwe Mkhabela is an agricultural economist and is currently the Group Executive: Impact & Partnerships at the Agricultural Research Council; [email protected]'

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