Applying Feminist Economics to Alleviate the Socio-Economic Impacts of COVID-19 in South Africa

The socio-economic effects of COVID-19 on both the economy and society as a whole have been far-reaching and devastating, highlighting already existing inequalities and access issues. By contextualising the COVID-19 pandemic and the socio-economic consequences it has caused, the limitations of mainstream economic approaches will be examined. South Africa will be looked at, by focusing on the limitations of the government’s mainstream economic response to the specific socioeconomic impact of the increase of gender-based violence during the COVID-19 pandemic, which will be used to propose ways in which feminist economics can be applied to alleviate the socio-economic impact of COVID-19.

 It draws a clear divide between the economy and society, human relationships and interactions, while placing undue significance on rationality (which ties into the dangerously incorrect view of mainstream economics as an absolute truth)

Mainstream economics and feminist alternatives 

Mainstream, or ‘male-stream’, economics refers to the dominant school of economics. It is mainstream in that it is widely influential in academia, law, and politics, and is the general public’s main (if not only) perception of economics. It is sometimes referred to as ‘male-stream’ due to the default image of a human being, the ‘economically rational man’, a straight white cis-gender man, that is characteristic of mainstream economics, and turns all other economic participants into the ‘other’, while upholding patriarchal systems and norms. It is used to exclude women (and non-mainstream gender identities) from the economy. Mainstream economics values individualism over greater society, where individual competition in the free market (CFI, 2021; Our Economy, 2019) is seen as the only means to achieve societal harmony and a successful economy. It draws a clear divide between the economy and society, human relationships and interactions, while placing undue significance on rationality (which ties into the dangerously incorrect view of mainstream economics as an absolute truth). Market growth and economic progress are seen as integral to social evolution (Agenjo-Calderón & Gálvez-Muñoz, 2019). 

On the other hand, feminist, heterodox economics exists to fill in the gaps that mainstream economics ignores, as an alternative, more sustainable form of economic theory. Feminist economics centres people, their lives and wellbeing, as well as gender. The importance of an economy to support people and to provide social services is emphasised, while also looking at how gender affects work, and therefore lives, as is the case with unpaid reproductive work (Mackett, 2020), and an intersectional approach is taken to consider the social intricacies of people’s lives and identities. In being comprised of these methodologies, feminist economics presents a direct challenge to the patriarchal nature of mainstream economics (Agenjo-Calderón & GálvezMuñoz, 2019).

The economy of COVID

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted already existing inequalities, namely, poverty, unemployment and access issues. Poverty has increased globally, but in South Africa, our huge wealth gap has made this all the more apparent. This is linked to the rising unemployment rates (now at 40%), as a result of the pandemic and the resulting economic lockdown, affecting both those  in the paid productive and unpaid reproductive labour sectors. Women have been more impacted than men during the first lockdown period, in terms of both increased job loss and reproductive care work (Casale & Posel, 2020; Mackett, 2020). COVID-19 sets back decades of progress in poverty alleviation, healthcare access and global public health, all of which exacerbate gender, and other forms of, inequality (UN Women). 

The government’s emergency response seeks first and foremost to prevent economic fallout. This means that issues not recognised by mainstream economics that do indeed affect the economy, including gender-based violence, are not addressed

Along with the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been greater awareness of the shadow pandemic, during which gender-based violence has increased, and left women, non-binary people, the trans community, and children more vulnerable, as we have all been confined to our homes to prevent the spread of the virus. The oft-repeated slogan “stay home to save lives” has not sought to interrogate whose lives are being protected – when violence against women and children has increased globally, where they are more isolated than ever, and may not be able to leave due to health concerns and government-imposed restrictions on movement. Resources allocated to assist those leaving unsafe homes are already scarce, and lockdown measures have made them even more so leaving many stranded and without access to support networks, or even phones, only exacerbated by unemployment, loss of income and increase of childcare (which means not being able to leave because of financial reasons, as it is harder to be mobile especially with children under lockdown rules). Prioritising keeping the economy afloat during a global lockdown has meant that gender-based violence becomes a mere footnote on the agenda, with even fewer resources allocated and even less (state and media) attention (Ramushu, 2020). The government’s emergency response seeks first and foremost to prevent economic fallout. This means that issues not recognised by mainstream economics that do indeed affect the economy, including gender-based violence, are not addressed. There are temporary, extended solutions such as the economic and social relief package, but these do not get to the root of the problem and are therefore not completely effective. We see this with the gaps in the COVID relief funds that were available for six months in 2020 to combat unemployment and the economy being closed due to the hard lockdown: informal sector workers not being able to qualify for the Unemployment Insurance Fund, and informal businesses and SMMEs (small, medium and micro enterprises) not qualifying for business relief funds; a huge issue for a sector which accounts for almost 5 million people (Pillay, 2018), who are suddenly left without a steady stream of income. More generally, this is seen in the government’s band-aid solutions to gender-based violence, which are approached from a paternalistic viewpoint, victim-blaming women affected by gender-based violence. Rather than holding perpetrators accountable and strongly condemning this behaviour by putting laws to protect those affected by GBV in place, the government itself does not hold politicians accountable (infamously, Jacob Zuma), which other perpetrators interpret as a ‘green light’. The South African state’s failure to properly address “root causes of unequal patriarchal gender relations in South Africa” have led to our terrifying gender-based violence statistics and the “feminisation of poverty” (Makhunga, 2014:33), both of which have only increased during lockdown.

Why feminist economics works 

Feminist economics critiques the individualist aspect of mainstream economics,  the aforementioned ‘economically rational man’, as well as the assumption that the free market never fails and is rational and flawless. Self-interest logic has been glorified throughout economic history, without considering that socially-constructed markets depend on  values of civility, trust, and accepting the law. Feminist economics is not opposed to the idea of the individual or the need for autonomy. Instead, it questions the concept of independence as  unpaid reproductive labour underpins capitalist markets, by providing (and raising and educating) a continuous supply of people into the labour force (Agenjo-Calderón and Gálvez-Muñoz, 2019). The ‘economically rational man’ is critiqued due to the fact that it excludes women (based on its definition), leading to gender-based discrimination. It assumes that economies are made up of individual participants, while feminist economics says rather than focusing solely on income and market growth, the greatest good for the masses is what should be focused on. The neoclassical method being assumed as an absolute, rational truth removes social contexts from economic data, which feminist economics argues causes it to be “biased and value-laden” (Agenjo-Calderón & GálvezMuñoz, 2019:145). This translates to limitations in the government’s response, where gender-based violence is not considered as critical to address, despite it affecting the economy. Feminist economics would say that because women are a large portion of the population, it should be necessary to deal with gender inequality (and urgently, GBV), as this also affects access to healthcare, education, food security, and employment, among other issues. As women are mainly responsible for childcare and unpaid domestic work, labour that keeps the economy going, as well as making up the majority of the informal sector, it would be beneficial to properly address gender inequality (and GBV). 

Gender-based violence is a human rights issue, but is also one of the economy. The cost of GBV is very much economic, as well as social, which is why feminist economics could be a possible solution as it concentrates not just on profit, but on what (socially) affects the economy. GBV costs the South African government R28.4 billion annually, money that could instead be used to build RDP houses, pay Child Support, Disability and Old Age Grants for at least two years, fund teacher salaries, provide National Health Insurance for 50% of people living below the poverty line. The reallocation of this money would address issues all connected to redressing gender inequality (Khumalo, Msimang & Bolbach, 2014), although first GBV would have to be properly addressed through policy, the law, and proper resource allocation. 

The response of the South African government should focus more on valuing and properly equipping healthcare workers, caregivers, low-income essential workers, and those working in feminised spaces and sectors (Ramushu, 2020). The importance of this lies in how care is integral to our capitalist society, and is the glue that holds society together, “from household to the hospital” (Parkes, Parvez & Stefov, 2020). This requires governments to centre care and people in the economy, just as feminist economics does. Importantly, what needs to be done to tackle gender inequality (specifically relating to GBV) is: restoring public and social resources to better support oppressed and vulnerable groups, to affirm women as equal economic and social participants; providing support systems for what is considered unpaid reproductive work, such as childcare nurseries and care services for dependent individuals (the elderly, people with disabilities); and “gender-sensitive budgets that take into consideration impacts on gender issues and the well-being of different social groups” (Agenjo-Calderón and Gálvez-Muñoz, 2019:155), which would directly tackle and deal with gender-based violence and gender inequality as a whole by providing greater access to resources, including being able to get to safe homes, and having access to burner phones (Brookes, 2021; Pathways to Safety, 2015) and cash to leave abusive, unsafe households. This shows that feminist economics is indeed more viable than mainstream economics to alleviate the socio-economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

By first understanding the socio-economic effects that COVID-19 has had on South African society, and the government’s response to mitigate some of these effects, the shortcomings of the response to the shadow pandemic of GBV were analysed to point out the limitations of mainstream economics. As Ramushu (2020) has stressed, if we do not change how we approach the economy, the status quo will just continue, with us learning to live with COVID-19 and the economy taking precedence as usual. Looking to feminist economics as an alternative, to respond to the gaps formed by these limitations, it has been shown that feminist economics is indeed viable, and substantially more sustainable, in challenging the socio-economic impact of the pandemic.

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