In this pandemic world of ours, there's a pattern that couldn't be grimmer. Odd that more isn't made of it. The three true Covid-19 disaster zones on Planet Earth the United States (583,000 dead, 32,000,000 confirmed cases), Brazil (428,000 deaths, 15,000,000 confirmed cases), and more recently India (258,000 deaths, 23,000,000 confirmed cases, figures considered gross undercounts) were or are still governed by men whose inaction added up to murder. All three were autocrats-in-the-making of a similar mentality, preening self-regard, and, of course, men the pandemic records of women leaders having been strikingly better. Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro, and Narendra Modi are, one might say, birds of a feather (if, that is, you want to insult birds).
Now, Trump is gone, at least to Mar-a-Lago, where he still controls much of the Republican Party and continues to threaten an increasingly threadbare democracy. The other two leaders, however, carry on with their disastrous pandemic behavior, continuing to transform their countries into hellholes; in Bolsonaro's case, helping spread the disease across Latin America; and, in both cases, possibly providing the perfect conditions for the development of a more vaccine-resistant variant strain of the virus. All three men paid next to no attention to science (though Trump at least fast-tracked vaccines), fought the simplest urge to mask or social distance for safety, held giant maskless super-spreader rallies, promoted bizarre cures for Covid-19, and were clearly responsible for the deaths of staggering numbers of people. As Arundhati Roy recently wrote of Modi (though it applied to all three of them), his actions were nothing short of "a crime against humanity."
In a sense, the three of them also created the "essential" worker. That's the polite, even flattering, way we have of describing those who have none of the advantages of Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro, or Narendra Modi but, in part thanks to them, have been thrown, often with little in the way of protection, directly in the path of a deadly disease. And as TomDispatch regular and co-chair of the Poor People's Campaign Liz Theoharis makes clear today, so many of the victims of those three preening "leaders" were women. Tears, as she says, should be shed in their honor. Tom
Mother's Day Tears
The Fierce Prophetic Vision of Poor Women
One hundred and fifty years ago, in the bloody wake of the Civil War, the abolitionist Julia Ward Howe issued a "Mother's Day Proclamation." The world, she wrote, could no longer bear such terrible violence and death. She called on women across the country to "rise up through the ashes and devastation" and come together in the cause of peace. Forty years later, her daughter Anna Jarvis created Mother's Day.
In the midst of another national trauma, with the latest Mother's Day just past, perhaps it's an auspicious moment to celebrate not just mothers, but women more generally. I think about countless women like my mom (who died nearly a year ago) enduring tremendous adversity to make ends meet and care for those they love. During the pandemic, after all, women have found themselves on the front lines in so many ways. They make up more than 75% of healthcare workers, almost 80% of frontline social workers, and more than 70% of government and community-based service workers. Add in one more thing: women have been hit first and worst by the economic crisis that Covid-19 set off, as female-dominated industries like retail, leisure, and hospitality were decimated.
The situation continues to be so dire for women that economists have even begun to talk about a "shecession." A recent poll found that a quarter of women claimed they were financially worse off a year into the pandemic. In March, the percentage of women out of, or looking for, work was the highest it's been since December 1988. For the first time in American history, job and income losses in an economic crisis have been worse for women than for men. And it's been poorer women and women of color who have been hit hardest of all.
But the true depth of this crisis can't be measured by job numbers and frontline risks alone. In an intensified yet eerily familiar way, this past year-plus has laid bare the pressures, burdens, and violence that women, especially poor women and women of color, face every day. It's highlighted the disproportionate, unpaid labor they shoulder at home; the role they take in raising and educating children while caring for the sick and elderly; and the paternalistic, often punitive, presence of welfare and law enforcement agencies like Child Protective Services, the police, and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents in their lives.
In such a moment, we should all think about the opening words of Howe's 150-year-old proclamation: "Arise, then, women of this day! Arise, all women who have hearts, whether our baptism be that of water or of tears!"
Of Water and Tears
Before slavery was outlawed in America, formerly enslaved abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass insisted that those who feel the first pains of injustice must be the first to strike out against it. That was the very kind of "baptism" Howe invoked in her proclamation an invitation to initiate women into struggles born from those already so much a part of their lives. Today, her invocation of "water and tears" should resonate for millions. Among them, it may have no greater relevance than for the women of the Michigan cities of Flint and Detroit.
April 25th marked the seventh anniversary of the ongoing water crisis in Flint. Many will remember the breaking news coverage about the lead poisoning of that city's water system at the end of 2015. Others will recall President Barack Obama's "mission accomplished" moment when he visited Flint and drank a cup of newly filtered tap water. But for the many women, poor and largely of color, who have become Flint's "water protectors," the crisis isn't over. Even now, new water lines are still needed in some neighborhoods. A $641 million class-action settlement fund from lawsuits against the state of Michigan has indeed recently been set up for Flint residents, particularly impacted children, to receive help. However, community leaders are continuing to organize, because unfortunately many of the families and children who need the resources the most will be left out since the settlement requires documentation, which the poorest and most vulnerable families will struggle to obtain.
It's important to note that the struggle of these warriors for clean water did not begin when the first cameras arrived in Flint to record the disaster. It began when, in 2011, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder appointed an unelected emergency manager to rule the city with near-dictatorial powers.
A similar emergency manager had already imposed mass water shutoffs in Detroit after that city went bankrupt, while the one in Flint switched from piping in well-treated water from Detroit to pumping water directly out of the Flint River, which had been an unofficial waste-disposal site for local industry for decades. It was seen as a cost-saving measure for that financially strapped city until a new water-piping system could be built. Warnings and safety precautions were ignored when it came to lead and other pollutants ending up in local drinking water, a decision that would, in the end, condemn Flint's inhabitants to years of mass lead poisoning. Because of that same tainted water, more than 100 people would also die of Legionnaires' disease.
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