The pandemic that changed the economy, political landscape, and daily lives of millions of people worldwide has prompted many of us to review some of the fundamental principles underlying not only our healthcare system but also our society in general. This has been vividly demonstrated recently in international intellectual debates, political speeches, and social media discussions.
Nadezhda Azhgikhina lives and works as a journalist in Moscow. She was the Vice-President of the Association of European Journalists from 2013 to 2019, and currently serves as the director of the Russian PEN Centre in Moscow and a member of the Gender Council at the International Federation of Journalists.
The world needs to change its priorities: it must turn away from the ideas of profit and competition towards internalizing the need for solidarity—this has been the key message of many recent discussions. In his recent talk with economist Robert Pollin, philosopher Noam Chomsky said that the neoliberal logic of development that has dominated the world for years is now at a deadlock. It was this very logic that brought us to tremendous inequality, gaps in economic and social development, and the tragic consequences resulting from the pandemic. “We must imagine a different world which would be based on different priorities”, says Chomsky.
Another opinion leader, Yuval Noah Harari, wrote that the world is now facing the acute necessity to abandon the principle of competition in matters such as earning profits, conquering new markets, and the arms race in favour of solidarity—the only thing that would be able to save humankind from future ordeals. The virus has vividly demonstrated just how true this is. Interestingly, the concept of social justice now even attracts authors who never before embraced left-wing ideas.
International political institutions place an emphasis on the humanitarian aspects of development. “COVID-19 is a test of societies, of governments, of communities and of individuals. It is a time for solidarity and cooperation to tackle the virus, and to mitigate the effects, often unintended, of measures designed to halt the spread of COVID-19”, writes Michelle Bachelet, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in her recent address to governments and peoples. Her words resonate with earlier statements made by representatives of UNESCO, Council of Europe, and other organizations. The sentiment we all share is that the world has to change for the better, and it is up to us to not miss this opportunity.
The crisis brought about by the virus has exacerbated the problems of inequality and discrimination, both worldwide as well as in particular countries and regions. The United Nations and the Council of Europe have issued recommendations for supporting those who find themselves in the most vulnerable position: migrants, displaced persons, refugees. A special place among these recommendations belongs to the documents dedicated to domestic violence. In the words of Antonio Guterres, UN General Secretary, the quarantine and severe isolation measures have led to an outbreak of domestic violence; in some countries the number of such crimes has doubled. “And so, I make a new appeal today for peace at home—and in homes—around the world”, he said. In some countries, the situation has worsened dramatically: in China, the number of cases has tripled compared to last year; in Europe, a growth of one-third has been observed, according to data provided by the EU authorities.
In Russia, it is rather difficult to talk about precise data. Statistical data have varied across different sources not only in the current crisis, but also ever since the monitoring of the problem was launched in 1992. In any event, there have been thousands of tragedies. Crisis centre specialists and activists began sounding the alarm in late March, when the first isolation measures were announced.
Experts including Mari Davtyan, a lawyer at the Consortium of Women’s Non-Governmental Organizations, and Anna Marina Pisklakova-Parker, Director of the Association of Crisis Centres, have warned that forced isolation in a confined space will lead to a greater incidence of domestic violence and that appropriate measures must be taken. The situation in Russia is aggravated by the fact that the country still has not passed a law against domestic violence (experts say that the federal parliament actually stopped working on it, largely due to protests from radical fundamentalist groups). Accordingly, law enforcement agencies have neither enough powers nor an adequate strategy to handle the challenges. There is an acute shortage of crisis centres for those suffering from domestic violence: there are just 15 of them across a vast country, many of which have also been quarantined and now are only able to offer online legal services and psychological consultations. A number of social services have been primarily tasked with helping elderly people. All this has left women in Russia without due protection.
During the initial days of self-isolation, we observed an increase in the number of phone calls to the crisis centres in Moscow, Saint Petersburg, Siberia, Volga Region, and other parts of the country. An upsurge of violence against elderly women was registered—a trend experts began noticing even before the pandemic.
Nine non-governmental organizations have addressed Russian authorities with a request to take measures to protect the victims of domestic violence under quarantine. These measures include setting up a simple and easily accessible system of calling for help, and providing ample information on how to use it. At the same time, crisis centres and feminists launched their own campaign against gender violence. The lawyers of the Zona Prava (“Zone of Law”) organization drafted recommendations for the victims. The official Moscow governmental services portal has published emergency addresses and telephone numbers, which are also being mentioned in radio broadcasts. But these all represent exceptions rather than the rule.
Feminists and NGO activists as well as some politicians insist that more decisive measures are needed. Galina Mikhaleva, head of the gender faction of the Yabloko party, held a series of online workshops on violence against women and the situation of elderly women together with representatives of women’s NGOs. Yabloko demanded that the government take immediate measures to decrease the level of domestic violence in the country by establishing coordination centres in various regions, exempting victims from liability for violating quarantine restrictions, and setting up additional shelters in unoccupied hotel rooms.
However, experts agree that the problem can only be overcome by adopting the law immediately. This is also the view of Oksana Pushkina, a member of the federal parliament who has received multiple threats from right-wing radicals for supporting the law against violence.
It is noteworthy that the problem is now being discussed on various platforms, including mass media. Quite recently, these discussions also began to include the need to overcome sexism and gender discrimination more generally.
A recent online presentation marking the anniversary of the “Sexist of the Year” award celebration highlighted not only the development of the main anti-award in the Russian Internet, but also the acuteness of problems related to gender discrimination—almost all of which have been aggravated during the pandemic.
Natalia Bitten, creator of the award, thinks that there is one more topic that needs to be addressed immediately, namely the exclusion of abortions from the list of emergency operations during the pandemic. Bitten also maintains that we need to borrow best practices from certain European countries where medical abortions are used as an alternative.
Crucially, the crisis has expanded the discussion of the problems related to gender discrimination in Russia well beyond the community of women. It is a vivid manifestation of solidarity that is becoming more tangible every day as the epidemic unfolds.