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Nuclear Weapons

Pandemic Chronicles: Missiles vs. Medical Masks

by Marina Favaro
May 18, 2020

In the last Pandemic Chronicle, we explored whether we are at war with COVID-19. This time we ask: if this is a war, then who are the casualties?

Overwhelmingly, women are more adversely affected by COVID-19. The same is true of war and nuclear weapons. This is because roles and actions thought of as feminine are less valued in our society than those thought of as masculine. This culminates in the debate over “missiles vs. medical masks.”

The Majority of Frontline Workers Are Women

COVID-19 has shined a light on pre-existing inequalities that fall along gender fault-lines. This includes supermarket workers, healthcare workers, caregivers, cleaners, teachers, and childcare workers.  In the U.S. and U.K., nonwhite women are more likely to be doing essential jobs than anyone else.

Women’s concentration in underpaid work makes them less secure, in both health and financial terms. Women are at greater risk of contracting COVID-19. And, the pandemic has a larger impact on women’s earnings, as compared to their male counterparts. The Institute for Fiscal Studies found that, on the eve of the crisis, women were about one third more likely than men to work in a sector that is now shut down.

nurses put on protective gear

Nurse Amanda Miller (R) assists nurse Kristyna Saja as she dons personal protective equipment (PPE) prior to caring for a COVID-19 patient in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) at Sharp Grossmont Hospital amidst the coronavirus pandemic on May 5, 2020 in La Mesa, California.

Mario Tama/Getty Images

For women on the front line, such as nurses and caregivers, Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) is often poor fitting. The design standard fits the sizes and needs of men. A world built around men systematically ignores half of the population. And, the consequences can be disastrous.

Intersectionality is a way of looking at the aspects of identity (e.g. gender, race, class, sexuality, ability) that intersect to shape individuals’ lived experiences. There is an undeniable intersectional dimension to this issue; growing data underscores that communities of color are being hit harder by COVID-19. In the U.S. and U.K., “low income” disproportionately means “black” or “brown,” which puts essential workers at even higher risk. This is illustrated by the fact that the first 10 doctors in the U.K. that died from the virus were all people of color.

Woman with a medical mask on looks at her son

Sevonna Brown of Black Women's Blueprint, a mutual aid group, looks at her son, Panther Herd, 2, on May 11, 2020, in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood in the Brooklyn borough in New York City. Neighborhood mutual aid groups have been cropping up across New York City in an effort to address the economic impact of eight weeks of economic lockdown and the resulting loss of income. Mutual aid provides free food and essential items to communities most in need. Black Woman's Blueprint runs a van called Sistas Van that visits low-income communities of color.

Stephanie Keith/Getty Images

Nuclear Weapons Disproportionately Affect Women

Just as the hidden burden of COVID-19 is falling onto women, the same can be said of the impacts of nuclear weapons. Detonated nuclear weapons affect women and men differently. The biological effects of ionizing radiation differ. And the social, economic, and psychological impacts of nuclear weapon use differ.

The different biological effects are most obvious in female bomb survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Women survivors die from ionizing-radiation exposure at twice the rate of men. There are similar findings from Chernobyl. The girls were considerably more likely than boys to develop thyroid cancer from the nuclear fallout. And, pregnant women exposed to nuclear radiation, such as those near the Soviet nuclear-testing site of Semipalatinsk, face a greater likelihood of delivering children with physical malformations or stillbirths. This also leads to increased maternal mortality.

woman holds daughter in her arms

Anna Savula, 36, cradles her daughter Dasha, 9, at her apartment on April 5, 2016, in Gomel, Belarus. Dasha was born with a debilitating condition called Dandy-Walker syndrome as well as a congenital heart defect that have left her with little cognitive ability nor motor functions and she requires 24-hour care. Anna was a 6-year-old living in Gomel when reactor number four at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant exploded and sent a cloud of highly-radioactive fallout over Gomel. A 2010 study led by U.S. researcher Wladimir Wertelecki in three Chernobyl-contaminated counties in northern Ukraine found a correlation between dramatically high rates of certain congenital birth defects and the presence of hazardous levels of strontium-90 in 48% of 20,000 women tested.

Sean Gallup/Getty Images

With regard to the social, economic and psychological impacts of nuclear weapons, the UN Security Council (UNSC) emphasizes that women and girls suffer disproportionately during and after war. This is because existing inequalities are magnified and social networks break down. As a result, women become more vulnerable to sexual violence and exploitation. In spite of these disproportionate impacts, there is an enduring underrepresentation of women in the nuclear policy field. This underrepresentation is even more pronounced when it comes to women of color.

While women have been leading in the nuclear policy field for decades, it is still overwhelmingly white and male. Female professionals have been excluded from public policymaking discourse (which is thought of as masculine). At the same time, an alternative discourse has developed that characterizes opposition to nuclear weapons as feminine.

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This is not just about more women having a “seat at the table.” It is also not about enforcing gender parity in policymaking fora. The “add women and stir” approach to inclusion has largely been dismissed as inadequate. The physical presence of women does not necessarily equate to the inclusion of gendered perspectives. As former U.S. Under Secretary of Defense Michèle Flournoy puts it, the constraints on women in the policymaking space are a “consensual straitjacket.” The point is this: gender coding determines policy priorities.

Reconceptualizing National Security After COVID-19

In the social contract theory of political philosophy, citizens enter into a deal with their government. Citizens agree to forgo certain rights and freedoms. In return, the government agrees to protect them. But, because of limited resources, governments cannot protect against every kind of threat. A government’s priorities depend on its definition of security. The “missiles vs. medical masks” debate embodies this trade-off.

Prioritizing defense funding over healthcare funding shows it all in stark relief. Countries tend to see national security as the highest priority. This is inextricable from the view of missiles as aggressive, penetrative, and masculine. Whereas, medical masks are the passive, feminine province of caregivers and healthcare providers.

group of medical workers stand shoulder to shoulder

Medical workers stand outside NYU Langone Health hospital as people applaud to show their gratitude to medical staff and essential workers during the coronavirus pandemic on May 12, 2020, in New York City.

Noam Galai/Getty Images

This puts the onus on policymakers to justify the enormous cost of missiles, at the expense of medical masks. On a much larger scale, it will be necessary to reconceptualize national security after COVID-19. Given that countries were woefully underprepared for COVID-19 and that militaries were not designed to respond to this type of threat, many citizens will grapple with their definitions national security and look at overblown defense budgets with renewed scrutiny.

Taking a gendered approach—as we have done in the cases of COVID-19 and nuclear weapons—exacerbates pre-existing inequalities. It is time to look at security in a new way. It's time to throw off the outdated notion that defense spending ensures the safety of citizens. It's time to value our caregivers, healthcare providers, and essential workers as much as we value our military might. We will not thrive otherwise.

This content produced in collaboration with the British American Security Information Council (BASIC). BASIC connects governments, policy influencers, and experts to design credible proposals in order to build international trust, reduce the risks of nuclear use, and advance nuclear disarmament.

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