It comes in waves, and makes right-wing radio hosts sick.
(I almost went with the more crass “ruins erections” here, but not enough people seem to yet know that COVID infection is associated with a six-fold increase in the likelihood of experiencing erectile dysfunction. Leaving a “COVID Can Wreck Your Penis” public service ad campaign on the table seems like a real failure of health messaging, but I digress.)
Beyond that, there’s not much similarity between a global movement that aims to advance gender equality and a global pandemic that has drawn attention to the scope of global inequality.
Here in the US, the pandemic has exposed the comically large gap between the rah rah girl power fantasy of our forward-facing cultural output and the behind-the-scenes lived experience of most American women. We’ve seen firsthand and very recently how without the labor of women, this country shuts down. And yet, here we are, a year-and-a-half in and barreling full speed ahead toward another pandemic brick wall.
Much has been written—rightly—about mothers being driven to breaking point during the COVID-19 pandemic. Those privileged enough to be able to perform their work remotely also found themselves performing the bulk of household and care duties, whether those care duties were for their own children, aging or sick relatives, or some hellish and impossible combination of both. Less privileged women and women who could not work remotely still had to take care of their families and homes, with many of the places they’d normally turn for help shut down.
The work that mothers outsourced in order to care for and educate their children was not done primarily by men. It was performed by other women—many of whom are women of color—who work in professions like nursing and teaching. Around 91 percent of this country’s 3.2 million nurses are women, and 83 percent of the 600,000 nursing assistants in this country are women. Around 75 percent of the 3.7 million K-12 teachers in the US are women. School secretaries and cooks are also overwhelmingly women. Working mothers have been driven to the brink, but so are the woman-dominated professions they relied on pre-pandemic. The latest wave of COVID-19 irresponsibility is a direct affront to the work of those professionals.
Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s attempt to force schools to take no COVID precautions when most of the children who attend them cannot yet receive vaccines is a yee-haw Fuck You to the work of Texas school employees and to the health-care workers who will have to take care of the children who get sick as a result. (And who provides hands-on care to sick kids who need to stay home from school? Statistically, it’s not men!)
Florida governor Ron DeSantis, a father of three who gives off the vibe that he’s never changed a diaper, is championing similar policies, wrapping his petulant clout-chasing anti-mask stupidity in the language of “parental choice.” Never mind the fact that discouraging children from taking steps to quell the spread of a deadly pandemic is about as sensible a “parental choice” as allowing kids to randomly blow up garbage cans in the hallways if their parents say it’s okay. (Ironically—if irony even means anything anymore—DeSantis and Abbott have gone on their own respective anti-choice crusades in their attempts to make it difficult-to-impossible for women in their states to access birth control and abortion. I guess they’re both pro-choice from the fourth trimester onward.)
While those two may be the most annoying about it, across the country men who have been put in charge are choosing, over and over again, to discourage behavior that would save women from doing unnecessary and taxing work.
We are asking too much of nurses and frontline health-care workers. The first waves of the COVID pandemic were hard enough on them, but this wave—which was totally preventable—is a bridge too far. I cannot imagine how frustrating it is to nurses who have their own lives and families I’m sure they’d love to engage with rather than running themselves ragged to take care of people who don’t trust medical science enough to get a vigorously tested vaccine but who suddenly come crying to medical science when they predictably get sick.
I understand why nurses would resent the COVID patients clogging up hospital beds and hogging hospital resources that then become unavailable to other patients. I don’t think it’s fair to expect them to show up to work every day smiling like happy-go-lucky angels sent to save us from our own irresponsibility, when it’s suddenly as though half of the country decided to go out driving drunk one day, and now every hospital is full of people who got into car accidents. “If only I’d known that not driving drunk could have prevented this drunk driving accident I got myself into,” the headlines would read.
I do not blame any health-care workers, and nurses specifically, for wanting to backpedal out of the hospital flipping the bird and telling their latest anti-vax COVID patient to try upping the dosage on prayers and quit bothering them. It makes perfect sense that places like Mississippi, Arkansas, and Louisiana, there’s a shortage of nurses. Of course Texas is having trouble finding people willing to bail Governor Abbott out. We are asking too much. Across the country, nurses have hit their limit and are walking away from the profession entirely. Fewer nurses means everybody gets less personalized care, which means worse health outcomes on medical issues that have nothing to do with COVID. By driving nurses away, vaccine stupidity is making things worse for everybody, and it could have effects on our health-care system that will linger for years.
I do not blame teachers and child care workers for wanting to scream and throw their desks through their classroom windows (if they’re lucky enough to teach in classrooms with windows, or have their own desks). In the best of times, we ask a lot of them. They spend money out of their own pockets every year to buy supplies that schools don’t have the budget for, exotic classroom offerings such as “markers” and “books” and “fans.” (For more on supplies that teachers normally buy themselves, check out the #clearthelists hashtag on Twitter or the website DonorsChoose. It’s depressing.) Many schools, embarrassed by this state of affairs, forbid their teachers from asking for help buying school supplies the schools won’t pay for. But during pandemic times, they’re forced to serve as plague watchdogs and put their own families in danger in places where governors have decided, largely without consulting with them, that they can handle even more responsibilities piled on without being compensated.
Nursing and teaching are professions that our leaders have taken for granted for far too long. We simply cannot keep expecting the women who do the bulk of that work to be superhumans capable of performing infinite emotional and physical labor, and who will be satisfied with a pat on the ass and a commemorative billboard in exchange for their sacrifices.