A Stimulus Backlash Delivers a Global Warning: Value Female Workers

A Stimulus Backlash Delivers a Global Warning: Value Female Workers

A Stimulus Backlash Delivers a Global Warning: Value Female Workers

A Stimulus Backlash Delivers a Global Warning: Value Female Workers

SYDNEY, Australia — Shelley Duggan became an essential worker when Australia declared that her job at a suburban child care center must be preserved so that doctors and nurses would have a place to send their children during the coronavirus outbreak.

Australia even made child care free, subsidizing wages and leading Ms. Duggan to believe that the country was finally learning to respect her work in a multibillion-dollar industry that is overwhelmingly female.

Now, though, that faith is shattered. With the country striding back toward normalcy, the first industry that the government is cutting from the subsidy program is Ms. Duggan’s. And just as free child care is ending, extra stimulus will be pumped into the construction industry — a contrast that many say reflects old sexist biases.

“They’ve thrown us under the bus,” said Ms. Duggan, 41, a mother of three with degrees in education and psychology. “I’ve been working through the whole thing while trying to home-school my children as well. It just goes to show that they are not valuing what we do.”

As countries relax coronavirus lockdowns and redouble efforts to bring their economies back to life, Australia’s throwback approach to stimulus spending has prompted a furious outcry. The message for nations a step behind Australia on the path to reopening comes from many sectors of society: This is not the 1930s or 1950s; economic priorities must match the times and account for women’s essential roles and sacrifices.

“One thing the Covid crisis has shown us is how important women’s work really is,” said Rae Cooper, a professor of gender, work and employment relations at the University of Sydney Business School. “They’ve kept us alive and kept our society running. Policy needs to catch up with what women are doing.”

The pandemic has placed a disproportionate burden on women. They have put themselves on the contagion’s front lines, in health care, in caring for older adults and in education, outnumbering men at almost every turn. Their unpaid work managing families has expanded. And studies show that they are suffering higher unemployment because they are overrepresented in retail, restaurants and other service industries crippled by lockdowns.

The trend lines are global. The coronavirus has weakened the already precarious position of women in the economies of countries such as India and Japan, and threatens to reverse their economic gains in many places, including the United States and Europe.

But Australia is an especially revealing example because its early approach to the pandemic set up what could have been a transformational moment.

Most Australians had to blink twice when their conservative prime minister, Scott Morrison, moved to protect the early childhood education sector in April. The cost of care for children under 5 had been surging for years without much interest from Parliament, and Mr. Morrison has often been criticized for his macho “rugby bloke” manner. He was scorned last year after saying that women should rise at work only if their gains didn’t come at the expense of men.

And yet, as he turned to scientists for the country’s public health response to the virus, Mr. Morrison — the father of two school-age daughters — yielded to crisis logic for an industry in which 91 percent of the workers are women. As parents pulled their children out of child care centers, the government agreed to cover half of the fees, included child care in its national wage subsidy program and declared care would be free for all.

The decision meant that many doctors, nurses and other essential workers could put in extra hours. Working parents nationwide, including Fernanda Fain-Binda, 37, a freelance writer in Melbourne, let out sighs of relief.

“When the child care fees became free, it was this incredible weight off our mind,” said Ms. Fain-Binda, who has a 5-year-old daughter and a 2-year-old son. “The moment the lockdown started, we actually increased my son’s days because we knew we needed that.”

The government did not exactly make it easy for the industry. In most cases, federal assistance failed to match pre-pandemic revenue. Many workers had their hours cut. Ms. Duggan, who works in a suburb of Melbourne, said she took a pay cut even with the government support, leaving her with a wary appreciation for Mr. Morrison’s assistance.

“It was a backhanded compliment,” she said. “‘We really need you, and the economy needs you, but we don’t want to pay you, because we don’t think you’re that important.’”

Eventually, the soft whisper of disrespect started to sound like a shout. One after another, federal and state officials crowed about plans to prioritize infrastructure projects and bolster manufacturing and construction — industries that are 70 percent to 95 percent male.

On June 4, Mr. Morrison announced a plan to support builders with 688 million Australian dollars, about $475 million, in grants for the construction or renovation of homes.

Four days later, his government announced the end of free child care and subsidies for early-childhood educators, despite promises that the program would last until September.

Asked how she felt about the pairing, Dana Lightbody, 42, a single mother of 3-year-old twins in Sydney, offered a common response: “Aw mate, it’s anger, seething anger.”

The conference and training company she co-owns has lost most of its business. In the past few weeks, she said she had sold a garage’s worth of old baby accessories to make ends meet. In July, she will again confront child care charges of more than $200 a day for her toddlers.

Professor Cooper, the gender and employment specialist, said that many Australians are outraged by the government’s approach. “It’s absolutely valuing men’s work over women’s work,” she said. “It is so obvious and so clear to the public that it’s really quite shocking.”

Mr. Morrison, for his part, seemed surprised by the indignation. “When we put the new arrangements for child care in place during the worst parts of this crisis, we were very clear that it would not be a permanent arrangement,” he said in Parliament on Wednesday. He noted that the usual subsidies, on a sliding scale for income, would soon return.

  • Updated June 12, 2020

    • What’s the risk of catching coronavirus from a surface?

      Touching contaminated objects and then infecting ourselves with the germs is not typically how the virus spreads. But it can happen. A number of studies of flu, rhinovirus, coronavirus and other microbes have shown that respiratory illnesses, including the new coronavirus, can spread by touching contaminated surfaces, particularly in places like day care centers, offices and hospitals. But a long chain of events has to happen for the disease to spread that way. The best way to protect yourself from coronavirus — whether it’s surface transmission or close human contact — is still social distancing, washing your hands, not touching your face and wearing masks.

    • Does asymptomatic transmission of Covid-19 happen?

      So far, the evidence seems to show it does. A widely cited paper published in April suggests that people are most infectious about two days before the onset of coronavirus symptoms and estimated that 44 percent of new infections were a result of transmission from people who were not yet showing symptoms. Recently, a top expert at the World Health Organization stated that transmission of the coronavirus by people who did not have symptoms was “very rare,” but she later walked back that statement.

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      A study by European scientists is the first to document a strong statistical link between genetic variations and Covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. Having Type A blood was linked to a 50 percent increase in the likelihood that a patient would need to get oxygen or to go on a ventilator, according to the new study.

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      Mass protests against police brutality that have brought thousands of people onto the streets in cities across America are raising the specter of new coronavirus outbreaks, prompting political leaders, physicians and public health experts to warn that the crowds could cause a surge in cases. While many political leaders affirmed the right of protesters to express themselves, they urged the demonstrators to wear face masks and maintain social distancing, both to protect themselves and to prevent further community spread of the virus. Some infectious disease experts were reassured by the fact that the protests were held outdoors, saying the open air settings could mitigate the risk of transmission.

    • How do we start exercising again without hurting ourselves after months of lockdown?

      Exercise researchers and physicians have some blunt advice for those of us aiming to return to regular exercise now: Start slowly and then rev up your workouts, also slowly. American adults tended to be about 12 percent less active after the stay-at-home mandates began in March than they were in January. But there are steps you can take to ease your way back into regular exercise safely. First, “start at no more than 50 percent of the exercise you were doing before Covid,” says Dr. Monica Rho, the chief of musculoskeletal medicine at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab in Chicago. Thread in some preparatory squats, too, she advises. “When you haven’t been exercising, you lose muscle mass.” Expect some muscle twinges after these preliminary, post-lockdown sessions, especially a day or two later. But sudden or increasing pain during exercise is a clarion call to stop and return home.

    • My state is reopening. Is it safe to go out?

      States are reopening bit by bit. This means that more public spaces are available for use and more and more businesses are being allowed to open again. The federal government is largely leaving the decision up to states, and some state leaders are leaving the decision up to local authorities. Even if you aren’t being told to stay at home, it’s still a good idea to limit trips outside and your interaction with other people.

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    • Should I wear a mask?

      The C.D.C. has recommended that all Americans wear cloth masks if they go out in public. This is a shift in federal guidance reflecting new concerns that the coronavirus is being spread by infected people who have no symptoms. Until now, the C.D.C., like the W.H.O., has advised that ordinary people don’t need to wear masks unless they are sick and coughing. Part of the reason was to preserve medical-grade masks for health care workers who desperately need them at a time when they are in continuously short supply. Masks don’t replace hand washing and social distancing.

    • What should I do if I feel sick?

      If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.


But critics say that the prime minister is missing the point. The Australia Institute, an independent think tank, recently found that stimulus spending on construction would create fewer jobs for both men and women than spending a similar amount on health, education and tourism or entertainment, which are expected to be future growth areas for economies worldwide.

The focus on hard-hat workers also ignores the fact that 55 percent of the newly unemployed in Australia are women — and that in survey after survey, women report that high-quality, affordable child care is one of the most important factors shaping their careers.

For years, Australians have envied Scandinavian countries of similar wealth that offer free universal care from as early as eight months of age — and for a brief moment, they had it.

“We saw for a couple of months that it’s possible to think more broadly than we have in the past and possibly change the gender dynamics,” Professor Cooper said. “And now it’s gone. It’s a real slap in the face to be removing stimulus in female-dominated areas at precisely the moment when women are dealing with an additional burden.”

Ms. Duggan said that even now, after Australia has mostly stamped out the coronavirus, the public health crisis and economic struggles for women have lingered. At her child care center, roughly a quarter of the work force was stuck at home this week waiting for results from Covid-19 tests for themselves or for their children, she noted. Many have already used their sick leave to get through April and May.

“We’re told we’re essential because people need to go to work and keep the economy running,” she said. “But once the economy starts running again, then we go back to being unimportant.”


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