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At the end of 2020, just before Christmas, my family took a long car trip. We drove for seven hours from Melbourne to Canberra to celebrate the end of an atrocious year with the people we’d barely seen throughout it. Christmas itself was a muted affair. We so urgently wanted the celebration to be special, to mark the time we’d lived through and survived. But how do you mark the end of something before it’s “over” and before you even know what “over” looks like. And how do you reconcile the hugely different experiences of the individuals who are present? There were those who had lived in the so-called COVID Capital of our country and endured one of the world’s longest and harshest lockdowns. And there were those for whom daily existence barely changed. Pass the prawns, please. Another slice of pie? Don’t eat Santa’s leftover milk and cookies, it’s not COVID-safe.
For me, 2020 was not unlike one long, awful car trip. We didn’t do anything much except try to pass the time. We barely moved our bodies, yet we were constantly exhausted. It was as if real life had been put on pause. But unlike the entire Netflix catalogue, which we watched in lockdown, there was no option to rewind and relive the delights of what had come before. No option to fast-forward to a more comfortable place. No time stamp to tell us how long this movie might last.
“While cities went quiet and highways emptied, our homes grew louder, and louder still.”
We stayed awake at night, wracked with insomnia, captivated by the repetitive, monotonous, terrifying uncertainty. And I know that this life pause existed not only for those living in Melbourne, for whom the world became so small when it was made to fit inside the desk drawer of a cramped makeshift home office. Rules and regulations kept us enclosed in that tiny space. We had no choice. We were wedged. While restrictions and the severity of government intervention in our lives did differ, a pause was the lived experience of all Australians.
International borders were closed. Planes grounded. Holidays cancelled. A once globalised world was declared off limits until further notice. The precious safety of our island home was guarded with unflinching enforcement. One case. Four close contacts. And state borders slammed shut. While cities went quiet and highways emptied, our homes grew louder, and louder still. Filled with toddlers shouting, sobbing older siblings, exasperated aunties, frustrated dads, and mums just trying to block it all out while trying to multitask homeschool and a Zoom presentation for work. Even the most expansive of living rooms became overcrowded with unfinished craft projects, exercise equipment and discarded paper bags of Uber Eats.
Days of the week blurred together, like that period between Christmas and New Year, but without the joy. For more than 18 months, the world has been in flux, with each of us experiencing a kind of functional disorientation. But while we wait for the pandemic to be over, our world beyond it is already being fashioned. What final shape it will take remains up for discussion and debate.
One thing we know for certain is that here in Australia, we have a head start. There is no question that having come through the pandemic comparatively untarnished, we have an incredible opportunity. An opportunity to “build back better”, as the politicians tell us.
“Women went into the pandemic already faced with a hugely unequal set of circumstances, and the pandemic has made those circumstances even more acute.”
Looking backwards should be for the purpose of imagining better, not reminiscing about a past through rose-coloured glasses. Our lens should be squarely on the economic policy and social settings that enable a future worth inhabiting. To build an Australia that is ready for the multitude of challenges that lie ahead. An inclusive Australia that provides opportunities for every citizen, not just the privileged few. It is time for our period of liminality to come to an end. It is time to rebuild.
At the forefront of that process must be the equality of women. Women went into the pandemic already faced with a hugely unequal set of circumstances, and the pandemic has made those circumstances even more acute. Globally, women’s jobs were 1.8 times more vulnerable in the pandemic than men’s jobs. Women make up just under 40 per cent of the world’s paid workforce but suffered 59 per cent of the job losses.
In Australia, women were the first workers to be laid off and the first to be rehired, often at a lower pay rate than before. Recruiters reported a change in priorities among women who returned to the labour market after lockdowns. Instead of picking up where they left off, both position and pay-wise, more women took lower-paid roles for the sake of security and flexibility.
According to the Australian Institute of Criminology, almost one in 10 women experienced violence from their intimate partner between March and May 2020. For a third of those women, it was the first time this had happened.
Women continued to shoulder the overwhelming burden of unpaid care work despite men being at home in greater numbers than ever before in the nation’s history. Provisional results of a survey by the University of Melbourne suggest that in households with children, parents are putting in an extra six hours a day of care and supervision, with women taking on more than two-thirds of the extra time. Australian Bureau of Statistics’ survey data reveals that women were more likely than men to feel restless, nervous, lonely and like nothing could cheer them up during the lockdowns.
A whopping 37 per cent of young women aged 18–24 reported experiencing suicidal thoughts. 2020 has exposed and deepened existing inequalities, revealing the frightening precariousness of Australian women’s security and happiness.
Women are more likely to be socio-economically disadvantaged and live in poor housing conditions with decreased sanitation or overcrowding, which increased the likelihood they would contract and spread COVID-19. Women also make up 75 per cent of the health workforce – and are more likely to work in roles that require direct physical contact with patients – placing them at greater risk of contracting the virus.
“The world is hurting as a whole, but women’s wounds cut deep, and the blood runs thick.”
In short? If the day-to-day impacts of gender inequality weren’t already apparent to an individual woman, they certainly made themselves known throughout 2020. Perhaps that’s why in March 2021, nearly 100 000 people marched on the streets of Australia’s cities and towns, demanding justice for women. These rallies followed extraordinary allegations of sexual misconduct and assault in the nation’s parliament. They proceeded further with revelations of harassment, sexism, and abuses of power, revealing a culture of patriarchy, sleaze and recklessness in the corridors of power. That such events had allegedly taken place in Parliament House and been covered up sparked fury in the minds of women who had never set foot inside that building.
Whether at home, at work or in the community, women regularly report not feeling safe. There is behaviour that comes as second nature to us, which makes men scratch their heads in confusion. Behaviour, when pointed out to them, prompts anger, defensiveness, and cries of “not all men”. We carry our keys between our fingers while walking back to the car at night. We move train carriages because a guy is looking at us in a way that feels threatening. We smile politely and decline the advances of a colleague because it will be awkward to say what we’re really thinking. We shrug off the comments of a great- uncle who is excused from the consequences of his blatantly sexist remarks because of his age. We grit our teeth when the boss calls us “sweetie” or “darling” or “babe”, or when a colleague describes us as ambitious in such a way that makes clear it isn’t a compliment.
Across the country, we gathered together in force to say that it happened to us. Our presence stole nightly news bulletins, dinner party conversations and Newspoll results for weeks at a time, but was there something else going on, too.
It may be too early to use words like “movement” or “reckoning”. Terms as considerable as these can perhaps only be justly applied in retrospect. But there is something in the air, and as you’re about to learn we stand on the precipice of genuine reform that could benefit women for generations to come. There is a decades-long whisper among the women I speak with that the work of feminism is not done yet. That while things seem fair on the surface, evil lurks beneath the waters.
Women’s lives remain the subject of stereotype and expectation, judgement and lack of opportunity. The pandemic has laid these realities bare in a way that is hard to ignore. The world is hurting as a whole, but women’s wounds cut deep, and the blood runs thick. There is pain steeped in politics,a lack of acknowledgement and empathy, a frustration that is giving way to fury that must be channelled calmly, seriously and judiciously towards a better deal for all women. Not just for the privileged – the wealthy, the white, the abled, the straight, the cis-gendered – but for women whose stories have too long been forgotten.
Coronavirus may have brought the world to its knees. But it is women who will stand strong in its wake.
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