Since she was not teaching during the spring semester, Jing Wang had originally planned on going to Boston for a conference, and Northwestern China to do fieldwork for her research. With the COVID-19 outbreak, however, her plans were quickly altered. After the death of Dr. Li Wenliang, she realized the rapidity with which information was being removed, lost, and forgotten, leading her to create a Sinophobia Tracker.
Alex Li was inspired by trending hashtags on Twitter and other social media sites that were highlighting female workers in Wuhan. This led her to question how people would perceive the specific wording of these hashtags and movements. For example, people cynically countered #BlackLivesMatter with #AllLivesMatter, so she feared people would begin asking “what about the male workers?” To solve this, BiedeGirls made sure to highlight that they brought supplies to front line female and male workers.
When the outbreak began, Sakura Chen knew she wanted to help but was not sure how. Taking inspiration from GirlsTalkLondon, Sakura started GirlsUpShanghai, a group which produces text, podcasts, and videos to start conversations and embrace opportunities through utilizing a female perspective. As COVID-19 swept over China, GirlsUpShanghai brought supplies to the front lines that people were not necessarily asking for, such as period pads, face cream, and hand cream. Sakura also highlighted the logistical issues they faced. No driver wants to drive medical alcohol into Hubei only to have to be quarantined for 14+ days after returning from the delivery.
Joyce Tan, the moderator of the pane, offered her own perspectives as well, stating that she felt resistance within her own family of men not wanting to wear masks because they saw it as a sign of weakness. This began her viewing of COVID-19 through a gendered lens. Joyce noted that there are more than 42,000 medical workers and that more than 28,000 (66%) are women. 5% of these women are pregnant. The risks of working in hospitals and areas with high infection rates are not small, and women workers often have their needs overlooked. Joyce then asked the panelists why they thought there was this lack of emphasis on female workers’ needs. Alex Li reminded the audience that in times of crisis, people have higher sensitivity towards injustice and minority issues, which typically translates to rage, anger, and social media movements. Nevertheless, these focuses quickly narrow. When female medical workers shaved their heads, this gained huge media traction. Alex argued this is because the image of bald women betrays that of the classic, traditional female and this is what gains attention, causing people to overlook other issues women face such as lacking period pads.
This leads the conversation to the under and over-reporting done by the media. Jing Wang pointed out that when hospitals in Wuhan were quickly constructed, the media coverage showed male workers, despite there being just as many or more female workers. Jing also commented that this pointed to not only gender issues but class issues as well. Nevertheless, Jing mentioned that although organized movements remain highly unlikely, social media has allowed people to gather a greater understanding of certain topics and issues. Sakura also talked about the importance of social media, despite government interference. She discussed that in this era, news spreads fast and that things are often shared many times before the government is able to remove or block the content, and in some cases, people are able to repost the removed content. Citizens utilize social media to speak out about what they think is right, even with government interference.
Overall, Joyce, Alex, Sakura, and Jing offered unique insights into the role of women in the time of COVID-19. They drew parallels to other historical crises such as the 2003 SARS virus and 2008 Sichuan Earthquake (汶川大地震) where many of the issues faced during this health crisis had also been confronted. Much of this has been forgotten, however, such as the xenophobia towards East Asians in 2003 and the idea that 2008 was a point of emergence of a new civil society because of the efficient and effective disaster response. The panelists reminded us that there are many people who’s stories remain untold and unheard during these crises and that many of the stories that are told will become forgotten or erased. Nevertheless, they were optimistic about the long-term impact of social media and the development of Chinese society.
This article was written by Steph Scaglia. Please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org to get in touch.
Photo Credit: Diversity Initiatives