Over the weekend, I had cause to revisit Boris Johnson’s great soliloquies of the coronavirus pandemic. The cause, of course, was the now notoriousinsight piece in last week’s Sunday Times, which documented the UK government’s response to the emerging crisis.
But what really captured my attention was not so much the patchy timeline – although, it is quite alarming, if you haven’t seen it already – but, the sheer, brute bellicosity of it all.
Johnson talks repeatedly about the “fight”, of defeat, sacrifice and enemy. He conjures images of us in battle, primal, red-faced and surging for the enemy, a colossal defiant army with spit, blood and mud motionless in the air, in our teeth, a hungry flame burning in our eyes. We fight as one against an indiscriminate beast that will touch us all, one way or another.
I suppose he was trying to harden our resolve, rally us around a common cause, and cement himself as a leader of men. But wartime language like this was last used, you know, when we were at war.
The coronavirus pandemic is not a war. Wars are governed by laws, they are tightly choreographed, strategies are agonised over, industry is mobilised. They are also predominantly started, fought and ended, by men.
Britain’s Covid-19 response is not a sexy, masculine game of strategy, fortitude and violence. It is a desperate, tragic, health, social and economic emergency. Describing it as a war harks back a century to when women were considered weak and vulnerable, and men were their designated valiant protectors.
Meanwhile, back in the present, and these dated connotations bear a dark resemblance to reality in homes across the country. The National Domestic Abuse helpline has seen a 25% increase in calls, and domestic abuse killings have more than doubled.
Women have historically borne the brunt of domestic abuse – although men can be victims too. From 2014 to 2017, women accounted for 73% of domestic homicides, and over 80% of high frequency abuse victims.
Coronavirus lockdown measures mean women are at greater risk than ever. They have been removed of choices and agency, stripped of access to regular healthcare, support, social workers, contraception, control over their bodies.
Women are also more likely to be in the part-time, low-paid, ‘unskilled’ or informal cohort of workers who now find themselves either without a job or reliant on government support. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has found that job losses so far have disproportionately hit women, as well as young and low-paid people.
Without income, women are more dependent on those around them, vulnerable to controlling partners and often in the primary caring role for children, without a way out. Women’s refuges are now operating at a “reduced capacity”, at least in Scotland, and women are much less likely to present themselves at a hospital or GP surgery.
The coronavirus lockdown is the perfect storm.
There is no room then for bravado, ego, hyper-masculinity and a rhetoric that divides along the lines of gender, especially from our leaders. In this crisis, we should give up antiquated war cries in favour of a language based on science and empathy.