Social development and inclusion

Intersectionality and responses to Covid-19

UN Women/Fahad Abdullah Kaizer (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

As the Covid-19 pandemic has intensified, and its impact has become more clearly understood, it has become increasingly clear that the phrase “we’re all in this together” misses the mark. The disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on women, who have suffered record job losses, been expected to take on even greater unpaid care burdens and home schooling responsibilities, and faced a “shadow pandemic” of violence against women and girls, is clear for all to see, backed up by a substantial and constantly growing body of evidence.

However, if we delve deeper into the differential impacts of the pandemic and the policy responses to it, we can see that these impacts are not only being felt in relation to gender inequalities. For a range of different groups, pre-existing situations of injustice are being reinforced and recreated in the context of Covid-19. Literature is now emerging to argue for importance of Covid-19 recovery plans that recognise intersectionality. Such plans should address how gender intersects with ethnicity, race, caste, economic status, disability, age, sexual orientation, geography, immigration status and religion or belief, as well as other factors such as employment, housing (and homelessness) and environmental and political stressors, to shape individuals’ and groups’ experiences of Covid-19 and its aftermath.

The relevance of intersectional responses to Covid-19

The term intersectionality was coined in 1989 by Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw in a paper on “demarginalising the intersection of race and sex”, and has since become a commonly used term in thinking and practice around the nature of injustice and inequality. When looking at the socioeconomic impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic, there is a small but growing body of literature that discusses the need for intersectional approaches to pandemic responses. Some studies have taken learning from previous global public health crises such as the Zika virus, SARS and Ebola, to demonstrate the ways that the Covid-19 pandemic is, and will, impact on particular groups. An intersectional approach is particularly important, the emerging evidence shows, in understanding socioeconomic impacts across the following areas: gender-based violence; mental health; sexual and reproductive health and rights; livelihoods and social protection; education; and participation and representation in decision making.

Emerging evidence on intersectional responses to Covid-19

As discussions around intersectionality and Covid-19 have grown, a number of guidance documents (For example: Hankivsky and Kapilashram, 2020, Ryan and el Ayadi, 2020 and Rosser et al, 2021) have been published in order to support decision makers, funders and humanitarian actors to undertake intersectional analysis of, and responses to the pandemic. Some common themes from this guidance include:

  • Collect data from diverse sources and disaggregate data not only by sex, but by age, health status, race and ethnicity, caste, disability, occupation, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, migratory status and geographic location. Contextualise data analysis within systems of power, such as patriarchy, globalisation, capitalism, urbanisation, war, conflict, climate change, racism and xenophobia.
  • Move beyond a “deficit” or “vulnerability” model, focusing also on engagement, lived experience and agency among affected populations.
  • Commit to diversity in decision making and leadership around Covid-19 responses, in order to promote decision making that understands the intersectional needs and experiences of affected populations.
  • Ensure that Covid-19 responses recognise and address the ways that the pandemic has exacerbated pre-existing intersectional disparities and inequalities around education, livelihoods, social protection, sexual and reproductive health and rights, the burden of unpaid care, and experiences of violence and abuse.

Finally, examples of potential “good practice” policies and programmes, that take an intersectional approach – either explicitly or implicitly – are beginning to emerge. These include: work to support refugee or displaced people with disabilities; social protection pandemic responses for women informal workers; and work to keep girls with disabilities and refugee girls in education during and post-pandemic.

As yet, these examples have had short timelines or are still in progress, and have not been evaluated, but they provide insights around what can begin to happen when we use an intersectional lens to think about who and how to support within pandemic responses.

Read the latest Covid Collective report: ‘Intersectionality and responses to Covid-19’

Jenny Birchall
Independent researcher