5 reasons why the COVID-19 crisis needs a feminist response now

Author: Christin Becker and Mara Brückner, Oxfam Germany

COVID-19 is currently occupying the entire world and requires action that takes into account the most vulnerable. Good crisis management requires more than just scientific research - it also requires a political and social response. Feminism has already developed the ideas that can now close the existing gaps of inequality, which have become even more obvious in our current shared time of crisis.

So here are five reasons why we need a feminist response now:

1. Each and every person is valuable.

Our actions must align with the fact that every person is valuable – accepting this fact is critical for each of us to live together in an increasingly interdependent world. The measures that governments take today will shape our future in the medium and long term. Anyone who sees existing inequalities and discrimination – whether based on gender, ethnic origin, age or state of health – as marginal issues that are not pressing in times of crisis, is missing the point.

2. The crisis hits some people harder than others. We need answers that address inequalities.

We are all worried about our loved ones and ourselves right now. We all feel uneasy and sometimes even afraid. After all, the pandemic has reached every corner of our world. However, it is also true that this crisis hits each of us differently. People who do not have a (safe) home, who live in poverty or have exploitative working conditions, as well as those who are chronically ill are worse impacted. Above all, older women and single mothers, who according to the United Nations are over represented among the poor and those at risk of poverty, are most severely affected by the current state of emergency.

A look at previous pandemics gives us an idea of what long-term the consequences of the crisis could mean for women in particular. Although all income fell as a result of Ebola in West Africa, “men’s incomes have returned to pre-epidemic levels more quickly than women’s,” health researcher Julia Smith told the New York Times. And even under normal circumstances women worldwide earn 23 per cent less than men, who in turn have 50 per cent more assets. This inequality is being exacerbated by the crisis.

Meanwhile more than 70 per cent of healthcare workers worldwide are women. Women also carry out more than 70 per cent of unpaid work worldwide, performing three times as much unpaid work as men. This responsibility is intensified by school closures and increased illness, which leads to a growing burden for carers - a burden for which political answers are often lacking.

This must change now. Unpaid, as well as underpaid, care and nursing work must be spread over different (and more male) shoulders. Instead of continuing to systematically devalue this work, it must be given the status it deserves and recognised globally for its role in social cohesion and propping up economies. If the answers are really to meet the challenges, women and local women’s rights organisations should not only sit at the table when decisions are made, but should also actively participate in building this table.

3. Fair pay is not a marginal issue.

Working from home, stocking up on supplies or washing your hands regularly? This is simply not possible for women farm workers, who are already paid less than men for the same work, often earn too little, live from hand to mouth and often have no access to (clean) water.

Dismissals and reduced working hours have become a particular threat to existence during the pandemic. The textile industry in Bangladesh, for example, shows that women in particular face an existential threat. The cancellation of orders by textile companies puts jobs and thus the livelihoods of garment workers, and women in particular, at risk.

Recognition and appreciation for essential professions and carers is important - but what is needed is adequate pay and safe working conditions for all workers – many of whom are now holding up our world – during the crisis, but above all in the long term.

4. Health and health care are not tradable commodities.

Especially for people who live in fragile states or in confined spaces, the risk of infection and serious or fatal illness is particularly high due to inadequate medical care. This is particularly evident in the Moria refugee camp, where a single toilet is sometimes used by over 150 people and where there is often no soap or the water supply is interrupted. The lack of (clean) water is also a bitter reality in other parts of the world. The equation is as simple as it is cruel: no clean water, no health.

Equal access to medicines, preventive protective measures or medical treatment must be ensured for all, and not only a select circle of wealthy people.

5. We can’t afford to lose sight of human rights, gender justice and environmental protection.

Even in times of COVID-19, politicians must not lose sight of their other responsibilities on human rights and environmental protection.

The answers to COVID-19 must not lose track of the Sustainable Development Goals. During the pandemic, the climate crisis has taken the back seat. Individual voices in politics and industry are already calling for existing environmental protection measures to be reversed for their own benefit. That would be a step in the wrong direction. The crisis requires sustainable answers. These also include strengthening global social and healthcare systems and gender-equitable social security systems that address specific risks for women.

Social and gender inequality is a core issue and has to be tackled now. Governments must not forget this in their political decisions to contain the virus. And if they do, we must stand together and remind them, wherever and whenever necessary.

This post is an translated and adapted version of the original, published on the Oxfam Germany website.

Posted In:

Life under lockdown - How Syrian refugees are protecting each other against Covid-19

"Some people thought flies could carry and transmit Covid-19 or that garlic, herbs and licorice-root tea could cure you of it… Others asked whether it was just the elderly who were at risk,” explains Aysha, a Syrian refugee at Za’atari Refugee Camp.

“There were so many rumours circulating a few weeks ago that it was hard to tell what was true and what wasn’t.”

As Covid-19 continues its relentless spread, refugees at Za’atari camp in Jordan are petrified at the thought of it hitting their community.

Photo: Adeline Guerra/Oxfam

Hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees like Aysha embarked on harrowing and dangerous journeys in search of safety. Almost ten years later, the  Za’atari Refugee Camp remains home to tens of thousands of people.

As the global Covid-19 pandemic continues its indiscriminate spread, proving no country or community is immune, researchers and experts continue to sound alarm bells about the devastation that could be unleashed if the virus spreads in refugee camps - places simply not built to weather a crisis of this nature.

Over the last few weeks, in an effort to protect against Covid-19, Oxfam’s programming adjusted - in an effort to ensure refugees are equipped as best as possible, Oxfam immediately kick-started online and offline hygiene awareness campaigns, community information sessions and a sophisticated phone tree network to disseminate messages and updates to as many people as possible.

“We’ve created a number of different chat groups on various platforms to spread awareness on the virus,” Aysha says.

“We stop rumours in their tracks, answer questions, listen to concerns and steer people in the right direction about everything from hand washing and hygiene to physical distancing. We also make sure that people only share material from reliable and valid sources.”

Aysha is one of hundreds of paid volunteers who are part of Oxfam’s Cash for Work programme designed to give refugees work opportunities, training, and a source of income.

The programme recognises and builds on existing skill-sets in a number of different areas that range from environmental caretakers and cleaners, community outreach workers, recycling workers and technical engineers. It was set up to fill a long-standing gap that made it difficult for refugees in the country – especially women – to access permits to work outside the camps.

As one of 18 community engagement workers trained to mobilise, engage and raise awareness throughout the Za’atari community, Aysha’s job these days is more important than ever.

Syrian refugee youth taking part in a hygiene awareness session co-organized by Oxfam/UNICEF well before any confirmed cases reportedly reached Jordan. Photo by: Nesma Alnsour

“We anticipated it eventually hitting here even though the virus still felt like it was far away, it seemed like only a matter of time", says Mohannad Abu Siam, Oxfam’s Senior Community Engagement Officer.

“We knew we needed an outreach strategy that could reach the most people in the least amount of time and we got to work immediately,” he says.

“We were on our phones, coordinating meetings, scribbling on white boards, organising phone trees, running community information seminars – including a partnership with UNICEF to run hygiene awareness sessions at schools and youth centres throughout the camp.”

Today, over 400 volunteers are part of a sophisticated messaging network that’s estimated to reach tens of thousands of refugees every day, cascading key updates, fielding questions and methodically tracking information that helps inform outreach material.

Oxfam’s Senior Community Engagement Officer, Mohannad Abu Siam leads one of many hygiene awareness sessions with students at Za'atari Refugee Camp. Photo by: Aisha Shtiwi

The nationwide curfew measures that have transformed the entire country have also changed life at Za’atari.

“Given how widespread the misinformation was about Covid-19, it’s rewarding to know I’m helping our community. The message to stay home was hard at first but given what the camp looks like these days, I think we got through,” Aysha says.

What was once a bustling five-square-kilometre refugee camp full of lively markets and street vendors, selling everything from wedding dresses to local cheese has since been transformed to a labyrinth of deserted streets, closed-up store fronts and an unfamiliar quiet has flooded the camp - no longer are the streets full of young and old making the best of unfortunate circumstances.

While she sits in her small caravan responding to community messages coming into her phone, Aysha’s two young children are glued to online classes.

“Students are now learning from home, meaning we get an additional ten hours of electricity during the day and then another two in the evening.”

Aysha describes the challenges of adjusting to these unprecedented times. Her frustration never articulated, but discernible in her voice.

“I lost my husband to the war. I’m the one that takes care of the kids, our home and the one that works. The most important thing to me is my kid’s education. So, I’m doing my best. I’m trying to help them with their homework, but this remote-learning system simply isn’t the same”, she says.

Despite it, she deliberately makes a point to express her gratitude.

“My work means everything to me, it’s not just a livelihood opportunity or just a job, it has given me a sense of purpose, ownership and agency. It’s so gratifying to be able to help raise awareness and connect with the community in these times of need.”

When asked how she feels about the future given the pandemic and the new normal that has become life under curfew, Aysha hangs onto a similar optimism.

“I think it’ll pass. It’ll pass, and we’ll soon be back to our normal lives where Za’atari’s streets will be buzzing once again the way they used to be. For now, I’m just glad that everyone is taking it seriously. I’m glad they’re following the curfew rules and staying home. And I’m so glad to help be a part of helping spread that message.

Ultimately, its precisely that that’s going to get us through this.”

Words by: Eiman Zarrug (based on an interview conducted by Aisha Shtiwi)

**This initiative would not be possible without the generous support and funding from the European Union (EU), the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) and UNICEF.

**Contents of this piece are the sole responsibility of Oxfam and don't necessarily represent views of the donors.


This disease knows no borders and does not discriminate. For the world’s poorest and most vulnerable, the worst is yet to come as the coronavirus begins to establish itself and spread quickly through communities powerless to stop it, without access to water, sanitation or healthcare.

Together, we can save lives.

Trust comes first: strengthening COVID-19 prevention mechanism in Rohingya camps

Since Oxfam’s humanitarian response in Bangladesh and Mayanmar began in September 2017, we dedicated our efforts to building relationships with the Rohingya refugee community and traditional community leaders like Majhis and Imams. Majhis and Imams hold an important role the camps as people listen to and respect their advice, and so they lead on developing community action plans for proper hygiene management to help reduce public health risks. Community-based Volunteers have also played an important role in ensuring accurate, timely information is passed onto people, and they have played a central role in strengthening Oxfam’s relationship with the wider community.

Damage following heavy rains at Rohingya refugee camp in Cox's Bazar. Photo: Mutasim Billah/Oxfam

COVID-19 now poses serious challenges for all people in the camps – both refugees and humanitarian responders. Aid agencies are only allowed to run essential services and as a part of the government’s directive, we are continuing our water, hygiene, and sanitation services – ensuring people have access to clean water and soap. It is a challenging task as only a handful of our team can access the camps because of strict regulatory controls that are in place to prevent the spread of the virus. Over the last three weeks, we have been providing essential emergency services successfully, and it has been possible because of Oxfam’s trusted relationship with the community.

It is amazing to see the leadership of the community in this challenging time. Community Based Volunteers and the community in general are playing an active role in keeping WASH services functioning, while our front-line warriors have taken up the role of facilitators and communicators.


Iffat, Oxfam aid worker, training Rohingya refugees about good health and hygiene in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. Photo: Abbie Trayler-Smith/ Oxfam

For example, Majhis are now monitoring the functionality of wash facilities and solid waste management at the block level. Imams are encouraging the community to practice hand washing with soap, maintain cleanliness of sanitation facilities and practice physical distancing in public places. Religious leaders are also encouraging people to practise their religious activities at home, to help slow the spread and keep people safe.

As Oxfam, we have a duty to ensure the correct information about COVID-19 is disseminated. Whenever people see Oxfam warriors in the camp, they approach to them for advice and information on a number of issues. Experiencing Oxfam as a trusted source of information demonstrates the importance of maintaining functional and empowering relationship with the communities, we work with everyday - because at the end of the day, we really are all in this together.

Dipankar Datta, Oxfam Country Director in Bangladesh

This disease knows no borders and does not discriminate. For the world’s poorest and most vulnerable, the worst is yet to come as the coronavirus begins to establish itself and spread quickly through communities powerless to stop it, without access to water, sanitation or healthcare.
Together, we can save lives.


Steps you can take today to make a difference in the fight against COVID-19

Sandra Stowe/Oxfam

Steps you can take today to make a difference in the fight against COVID-19.

As COVID-19 continues to affect communities across the world, it can feel very overwhelming and scary. But there are ways we can help slow the spread and cope with this global pandemic together. No one individual, community, or country can deal with this challenge alone. We must work together, in our communities and across borders, with dignity and compassion.

Here are a few ways you can help

Take care of yourself: Stay healthy, stay active, stay calm, and remember to keep washing those hands. Treat yourself to a nice hand moisturiser too!

Take care of others: Stay home to help flatten the curve and give our healthcare workers the very best chance we can to handle this crisis. Check in on neighbours, friends, and family. Make video calls. Pick up the phone and call a friend instead of texting. Ask the people around how you can help. Stay connected with and mindful of the people you love.

Support small businesses, responsibly: Get takeout or delivery from your favourite local restaurants (if you don’t feel comfortable doing that, you can buy gift cards from them online). Support local shops and businesses when you can. And remember to keep your donations safe for when our network of shops reopens – your pre-loved items are a lifeline and we will need them more than ever.

Donate to organisations helping people most affected by COVID-19: We’re on the ground responding to COVID-19 in over 65 countries, delivering life-saving clean water, soap, and sanitation services like toilets to some of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people. We’re most concerned about those without access to health and hygiene infrastructure, like the almost one million Rohingya refugees living in the world’s largest refugee settlement in the world. Donate today to ensure we can continue to support families at risk in Bangladesh and beyond.

Push for policies that will help us beat this together: The economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic could push half a billion more people into poverty – setting the fight against poverty back by up to 30 years in some parts of the world, including Africa.
As governments take necessary steps to manage the spread of the virus, entire economies are being shut down – this is already having a devastating impact on the world’s poorest people who are most likely to be in informal employment, without labour protections such as sick pay or the ability to work from home.

Economic stimulus packages must support ordinary workers and small businesses, and bailouts for big corporations must be conditional on action to build fairer, more sustainable economies.

An ‘Emergency Rescue Package for All’ would enable poor countries to provide cash grants to people who have lost their income and to bail out vulnerable small businesses.

Read our recent report Dignity Not Destitution: An Economic Rescue Package for All and find out how world leaders can support poor countries and poor communities during this global crisis.

This disease knows no borders and does not discriminate. For the world’s poorest and most vulnerable, the worst is yet to come as the coronavirus begins to establish itself and spread quickly through communities powerless to stop it, without access to water, sanitation or healthcare.
Together, we can save lives.

Posted In:

As COVID-19 cases grow, displaced Rohingya face new threats that reflect continued persecution

COVID-19 has become an inescapable reality. At the time of writing, 28 April, there were 146-recorded cases Myanmar and 5,913 cases in Bangladesh. While for Oxfam, such announcements have been anticipated given the global nature of the pandemic, the spread of the virus in the both countries has nonetheless brought with it further fears and uncertainty for Rohingya refugees living on obth sides of the border.

Habiba* washes her son at an Oxfam water pump. Habiba lives in Kutupalong Camp with her three children. Oxfam installed four hand pumps near to her home. Credit: Tommy Trenchard/Oxfam (*name changed)

The virus is set to have a potentially devastating impact on the hundreds of thousands of people who have fled the violence and conflict.  

Oxfam has ongoing humanitarian programming in many internal displacement camps, including the confined camps in Rakhine where an estimated 120,000 displaced Rohingya people have remained for the past eight years.

We see first-hand the extremely limited access to health care and other essential services internally displaced people (IDPs) in Myanmar have, as well as the underlying health challenges they face, from chronic malnutrition to cramped living conditions in inadequate shelters. All of these factors could significantly worsen if there is a COVID-19 outbreak. In the confined camps in Rakhine, basic preventative measures, such social distancing and self-isolation, remain impossible - with ten or more family members often living in a single shelter that measures about nine by five foot.

Please send doctors

Even hand washing is out of reach for some in the camps in light of the extremely limited water supply. Based on our ongoing discussions with the Rohingya community, before the threat of COVID-19 became apparent, it was already clear that they faced major challenges in terms of basic health care:

“Living here in the camps, everything gives us diseases. The camp infects everyone with diseases, and I have no money to see a doctor. We must sit and bear it and suffer without any medication. We have no means to go see the doctor even when we are sick.” — Rohingya woman, 28 years old, displaced and living in the confined camps in central Rakhine, Myanmar.

“Please send good doctors to the camps with enough medicine because here in the camps people here are losing their lives day by day. The camps make it very easy for people to contract diseases, but difficult to get medical treatment. The doctors do not see the patients and do not help us. And the patients are not receiving the right medicine for the illnesses they suffer.” — Rohingya woman, 35 years old, displaced and living in confined camps in central Rakhine, Myanmar

These women’s words reflect the extremely limited medical care in the camp, with doctors available only sporadically, and severe restrictions on the ability of people to leave the camps and access more specialised services at the nearby hospital. If someone in the camps falls ill and needs more specialised care, they must seek and receive official permission, which often takes several days, and they must pay a security escort to travel with them to the hospital located only a few kilometres away in town.

The complicated, time consuming and expensive process means that many are simply unable to access vital health care, even in an emergency. In this context, if people do become sick with the COVID-19 virus, it is likely they will have little to no ability to isolate themselves or seek professional care.

The possibility of an outbreak of the virus in these camps became that much clearer this week as a cases of COVID-19 were confirmed in Cox’s Bazar, the town located across the border in Bangladesh, which is home to the sprawling refugee camps where one million Rohingya refugees currently live after fleeing horrific violence in Myanmar in 2017.

Shim*, 12, holds an Oxfam food parcel she received from a distribution at Kutupalong Camp, Bangladesh. Credit: Tommy Trenchard/Oxfam

Oxfam is urgently scaling up humanitarian work

This is why we are urgently scaling up our humanitarian efforts in the Rohingya camps in Myanmar and Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.

With our partner Solidarités International, we are increasing public health promotion activities, including the urgent construction of an additional 1000 hand-washing stations, the distribution of 17,000 pieces of soap every month along with other basic hygiene items and sharing essential information about the prevention of the virus in Rohingya language through community networks and channels.

Similarly, in Cox’s Bazar, we have intensified and escalated hygiene promotion efforts, including prevention messaging with communities, while enhancing water and sanitation facilities. In a welcome move, the Office of the Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner in Cox’s Bazar designated water and sanitation services as essential ones, enabling us to continue to deliver life-saving measures during the COVID-19 crisis. Continued humanitarian access for life saving activities in the camps on both sides of the border remains critical.

While Oxfam, along with governments and other humanitarian organisations are mobilising quickly to prevent the spread of the virus, another concern that could significantly worsen the spread of the COVID-19 virus is the shutdown of Internet services. Unlike most places in 2020, where we can check our mobile phones for immediate information about the virus, how to prevent it and what to do if you feel ill, Rohingya refugees have experienced the shutdown of internet services on both sides of the border.

Health crisis, human rights crisis

None of these issues — from the lack of protection, to the lack of essential services, to the lack of information — are new. Rohingya communities have been faced with an entirely precarious existence for years, struggling to access the very basics to survive. However, the threat of COVID-19 is putting the human rights crisis faced by Rohingya living in camps on both sides of the border into sharper focus. It starkly shows how equal rights are central to ensuring each human life is valued and protected, whether it’s amid a pandemic or not.

It’s by focusing on the rights of Rohingya and other displaced communities that we can increase the effectiveness of COVID-19 prevention efforts in the immediate and reduce vulnerabilities over the long term.

Alison Kent, Director of Advocacy & Communications, Oxfam in Myanmar.

This disease knows no borders and does not discriminate. For the world’s poorest and most vulnerable, the worst is yet to come as the coronavirus begins to establish itself and spread quickly through communities powerless to stop it, without access to water, sanitation or healthcare.
Together, we can save lives.