Consider This: COVID-19 Makes Intersectional Research Urgent


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"We are all in this together" has been an important rallying call throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet early data from the UK and recent data from the US indicate wide disparities in death rates among Black, Indigenous and other people of color compared to white populations. Data from July 2020 shows the greatest rise of mortality in the US among Black and Indigenous people. All signs point to the fact that Indigenous, Black, people of color, women, people with disabilities, LGBTQ2S, and poor people (and these are not mutually exclusive categories) are more intensely affected by this pandemic. Yet, comprehensive and disaggregated data does not exist in Canada: none of the provinces currently collects data beyond gender, and neither does the federal government. Without disaggregated data that includes Indigeneity, race, ethnicity, gender, disability, sexuality, etc., we cannot fully understand the role of racism, colonialism, sexism and other oppressions as social determinants of illness and death.

Individual research cases are beginning to show how under conditions of lockdown, pre-existing conditions of inequality are worsening. High income earners have a greater chance at being able to work remotely; lower income workers are more at risk of losing jobs. Gendered patterns of work are intensifying with women no longer working only the "two shifts" researchers long identified as women's waged labor followed by a second shift of domestic work at home. With many services closed, women now do triple - even quadruple - shifts, caught between the competing demands of paid work, child and dependent care, homeschooling, and intensified chores in a household under lockdown. These challenges of course also apply to parenting men (though the jury is still out on how much men pick up the slack during the pandemic). Women are differentially affected by lay-offs in the retail and service sector and the other industries hardest hit by the economic shutdown and slowdown. Indeed, many now speak of a "she-cession" that cannot be solved with the means of traditional infrastructure stimulus programs, the "he-covery." Yet a gendered lens alone does not capture sufficiently the differential effects of the pandemic on different populations - nor how we get out of it.

Standard research protocols in medical and pharmaceutical research continue to take male bodies as the norm, even while early infection patterns show some sex-specificity with men accounting for 61% of corona related deaths. If the virus affects male and female bodies differently, then treatments or cures must take sex and sex variation into account to be safe.

What is clear months into the COVID-19 pandemic is that our research, no matter what discipline, needs to be driven by disaggregated data and intersectional design to be effective.

Intersectionality as theory and practice was first developed by Black feminist activists and scholars. As an analytical lens intersectionality initially provided a means to begin understanding the specific ways that racist and sexist oppressions interact and together shape the specific conditions of work and life for Black women. To understand the precarious conditions of frontline healthcare workers right now, many of whom are Black and immigrant women, a gender or race analysis alone won't suffice. Similarly, to understand why the majority of those refusing to wear masks during this pandemic are men, we need to consider masculinity. We need to understand why some men perceive wearing masks as shameful or a sign of weakness - and we also need to consider how mandatory mask wearing can endanger Indigenous and Black men under the conditions of widespread anti-Indigenous and anti-Black violence. And, we need to develop masks or face shields that allow people who read lips to still be able to do so.

Intersectional research commits to studying how different populations are differently exposed to risks and opportunities related to our complex identities and social locations. This research has always been important. Now, as ever, it sheds light on the life-and-death stakes of social belonging. This virus may potentially affect us all, but how we are in it together is a matter of great social difference.

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About Susanne Luhmann

Susanne Luhmann is an Associate Professor in the Department of Women's and Gender Studies (on research/admin leave in 2021) and was the inaugural director of Intersections of Gender (IG), one of five signature areas of research and teaching at the University of Alberta.