Initially hailed as the ‘great equalizer’, the COVID-19 pandemic has, in reality, exposed the depth of institutional, structural and systemic discrimination and inequality in our societies. As the crisis evolves, the virus is ravaging communities of Color, exposing essential workers, and sending health care systems reeling from the sheer volume of cases. Incidents of racism have increased, communities marginalized by oppressive systems are more exposed to COVID-19, and capitalism has been prioritized over life in the rush to return to the unequal norm. If there was ever a doubt that discrimination and exclusion are the foundation of modern democracies, in all their variations, the impact and reach of the pandemic should have put those doubts to rest. The more pressing questions for Europe at this time are 1) how can societies come together during this crisis, and 2) how can intersectional principles inform policy responses to the pandemic that further anti-discrimination and intersectionality more systematically?
Germany has received domestic and international praise for its response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Chancellor Merkel’s government took swift and transparent action that effectively coordinated with the Federal States to contain the spread of the virus while providing state support for those affected by the crisis. In March, the Federal Government approved an aid package to support small businesses and self-employed entrepreneurs, to provide unemployment benefits for laid-off workers, as well as to relax rent restrictions, among other protections all aimed at strengthening the social security net during the pandemic.
Still, the national response and statistics do not provide a holistic picture of the impact of the pandemic in communities marginalized by discrimination. Daily statistics on the infection and death rates are maintained and updated regularly by the Robert Koch Institute (1). Missing from this data is the distribution of cases among People of Color, refugee communities, people living with disabilities, people living in poverty and other affected minority groups. The reluctance to maintain disaggregated data (2) means communities do not have the information to advocate for evidence-informed policy responses. The lack of information is even more concerning as media and advocacy organizations report significant ramifications of the pandemic for communities marginalized by discrimination.
For example, refugee networks and advocates have criticized the government for failing to provide better protection against infections as media outlets reported crowded conditions, poor hygiene, as well as increasing numbers of people testing positive for coronavirus in certain facilities. Communities have faced a host of additional challenges during the pandemic as public information about the virus and its spread was inaccessible for the deaf and the homeless population (3), in-person services for people living with disabilities were temporarily suspended (4), schools were closed affecting single-parent households and reports of domestic violence increased during the mandated quarantine. Since March the Anti-Discrimination Network of Berlin has reported an increase in incidents of racism against people perceived to be Asian who were verbally attacked in public spaces, (ADNB, 2020). And the Federal Anti-Discrimination Agency reported increased incidents anti-Asian racism including threats to Chinese citizens, and denial of services or medical treatment to people perceived to be of Asian descent. African community organizations have also reported similar incidents targeted at people of African descent. Additionally, Eastern European migrant workers are being flown into Germany to harvest agricultural produce, raising concerns about their safety and working conditions.
Until recently, protests against the lockdown measures were gaining momentum in Germany, Europe and the US with many conservative groups arguing that lockdowns curtailed civil liberties. While frustration with being restricted is understandable, more concerning was how in the name of ‘returning to normal’ protests supported reinforcing systems of inequality. In the wake of health systems struggling to care for all, critics called for the prioritization of younger lives over older ones. Restrictive and in some cases, punitive COVID-19 policies enabled unchecked police violence and in France, working-class and impoverished neighborhoods are particularly vulnerable to intense monitoring from police in the name of enforcing lockdowns. People living in poverty and People of Color became the foot soldiers in the essential workers’ workforce exposed to coronavirus, yet their work ensures that the more privileged can self-isolate and stay at home. And camps housing migrants and asylum seekers in Greece have remained open, even as they were filled beyond capacity and inadequately equipped to manage the crisis.
The COVID-19 climate of uncertainty and fear prompted many to cling to the familiar; a familiar founded in colonialism, capitalism, patriarchy, racism, and discrimination. But for me, the recent wave of growing global resistance signals the imperative of a paradigm shift that addresses these hierarchies of exclusion, now. Protests for George Floyd, “the black man who died in Minneapolis when a police officer kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes” (Baker et. al, 2020), protests demanding justice for Adama Traoré, a black man who died in French police custody in Paris, in 2016 , and solidarity protests around the world call attention to the human cost of oppression and discrimination. Interconnected, and profound inequality existed in our communities long before the pandemic began. We cannot return to normal because it was never good enough, fair enough, or just enough.
Intersectionality is an analytical approach, a legal and policy tool and a theoretical concept, that captures the various layers of advantages and disadvantages everyone experiences based on societal and structural systems. The concept of ‘intersectionality’ addresses gaps in legal and institutional frameworks to acknowledge and address the interplay of multiple layers of oppression.
-CIJ Factsheet: Intersectionality at a Glance in Europe
In her 2016 TED talk, Professor Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw (who developed the theory of intersectionality) calls us to understand how intersecting forms of violence reinforce oppression. Intersectionality provides a framework with which to identify institutional and systemic discrimination and provides the tools to transform institutions, organizations and systems. For example, intersectionality highlights the importance of having representative data and information about the extent of the pandemic in communities marginalized by colonialism, exclusion and poverty. This understanding of the epidemic empowers communities and policymakers to develop intentional, targeted interventions in response to the crisis. But intersectionality also reminds us that data and information are only the beginning.
In the words of Audre Lorde there must be a “basic and radical alteration in those assumptions underlining our lives” if inequality and systems of discrimination that view some lives as less valuable than others are to be dismantled. Intersectionality provides a lens with which to challenge assumptions and identify potential solutions. For example, national dialogues have fixated on productivity, overlooking the diverse challenges different communities face professionally, mentally, emotionally and spiritually at this time. On the other hand essential workers are lauded for their on-going work throughout the pandemic, yet there has been limited discussion of the numbers of immigrants and People of Color who are essential workers, and how systems of inequality impact the nature of their work and their communities. In the unprecedented push towards digitization for remote living, schooling and working during the pandemic, some communities are simply unable to access the internet. Moreover, for people whose homes are not a safe space, remote learning, studying or working is not a realistic expectation. And as the impact of COVID-19 re-energizes the dialogue on climate change, it is important to avoid falling into ecofascist rhetoric that advocates state-sanctioned population control in the name of climate justice. An intersectional analysis is necessary to understand structural barriers, but it also offers evidence to create benchmarks and set a path towards strategic and effective solutions against systemic exclusion, discrimination, and social inequalities (CIJ, 2020).
Many organizations in Berlin and Germany are already working to raise awareness of intersectional issues and organizing with vulnerable communities. Several platforms are coordinating community volunteering to provide help and assistance to those in need during the pandemic. In Berlin, Karada House is running an LGBTQIA and Womxn Covid-19 program, providing assistance to queer and refugee communities. In solidarity, refugees in west Berlin came together to sew masks and provide food services to their neighbors. Advocacy organizations continue to raise awareness for the challenges that lockdown restrictions bring, calling on the government to provide inclusive support that considers the gender dynamics of lockdowns, as well as advocating for safe accommodation for the homeless population during the pandemic. Community organizers have also started a petition to enable parents to manage child care and professional demands during the pandemic.
Globally, communities are developing virtual ways to organize for system change, and the Free the Vaccine initiative has coordinated over 300 activists in 29 countries to campaign for equity in access to the COVID-19 vaccine for everyone. If successful, the campaign would fundamentally shift the vaccine development process for future pandemics. At a policy level, the Center for Intersectional Justice recently published the Factsheet: Intersectionality at a Glance in Europe, an open-source resource and tool for organizers and institutions dedicated to creating more intersectional and inclusive post-COVID-19 policy.
As we consider how communities move forward from the pandemic, we must be wary of replicating systems of inequality out of fear or because they are familiar. There are no easy fixes, but we can start with deconstructing systems of oppression, creating accessible spaces for the social and economic freedom of all. And intersectionality will help us to leave no one behind, instead ensuring that people most marginalised by systemic inequality and discrimination are safe, and have access to resources, voice and power (Roig, 2020). Social transformation is born out of times like the one we are currently facing. Perhaps now is the moment to be bold in our pursuit of genuine intersectional change.
(1) Produced in both English and German, the RKI briefing provides data summarizing the pandemic’s impact across Germany.
(2) Public sector institutions have avoided collecting specific data to prevent replicating human rights violations and potential institutional marginalization of minorities that took place during the Nazi era (CIJ, 2020, pg 5) .
(3) Some individual states have developed repositories of COVID-19 resources as well as services available for those affected by domestic violence, parents, people living with disabilities, refugees and older adults during the months-long lockdown.
(4) Phone services were still available.