Seeds of resistance: Palestinian farmers fight against annexation and pandemic

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The violent Israeli encroachment and annexation of Palestinian land is compromising the future of the West Bank and putting its residents in an extremely vulnerable position. Palestinians are resisting both ...

COVID-19 | How COVID-19 exacerbates inequalities in academia

COVID-19 | How COVID-19 exacerbates inequalities in academia

The COVID-19 crisis has brought to the fore gendered and racialised aspects of precarity that were steeping in academia long before the virus emerged. The increased burden of unpaid care ...

COVID-19 | Putting COVID-19 into context(s)

COVID-19 is a hazard, but does not produce the risks that we now see unfolding throughout the world, says ISS researcher Dorothea Hilhorst, who recently participated in a webinar organized by Humanitarian Knowledge Exchange platform Kuno to reflect on how the COVID-19 pandemic is being handled and what could be done differently. Here’s what she had to say.

Covid Checks in IndiaCOVID-19 is sweeping the globe and widely triggers top-down and centralised emergency measures. I don’t recall another crisis that has created such a response, even though the actual numbers of people affected have been very modest compared to many of the other crises we have in this world, including the lack of access to clean water, resource competition in mining areas, conflict and refugee problems, and climate change. In the beginning, I often found myself thinking if only the world would muster the courage to also address these other crises, and give them more priority than short-term economic gain.

However, it is also clear that there are strong limitations to the bold and robust responses of top-down emergency management. Firstly, I really resent how we seem to conflate the hazard of COVID-19 with subsequent risks. Yes, COVID-19 is a nasty and infectious virus. But it is not a virus that dictates that it should lead to widespread food shortages or increased marginalisation of the poor and vulnerable populations. These are spillover crises that relate to but are not directly caused by the virus.

These spillover crises are not just happening, they are let be by policy. When we signal the risk of food insecurity in the wake of COVID-19, I see agencies jumping to raising funds and stockpiling to feed the world. However, why don’t we talk about preventing this crisis? Why not focus on diplomacy to continue food exports from surplus-producing countries? Why not ensure that markets stay open and continue to function? Why not give peasants free range to go to their fields (at distance from other human beings) instead of locking them down in their houses?

Secondly, we have to be really aware about the many instances where governments have instrumentalised COVID-19 for other purposes, such as to curb the freedoms of civil society, to silence the media, or to undermine political opponents. Hungary is a case in point, where the government, under the pretext of misinformation about COVID-19, has closed critical media outlets. Authorities in many areas are seen to instrumentalise COVID-19 to increase surveillance and control, at the detriment of human rights and civil society, with rumours increasing the mistrust between people and their state.

Thirdly, while there is no doubt that top-down policies and expert knowledge is required to address the crisis, there are also indications about the limitations of this approach. Top-down approaches may ignore, stifle, or expire local coping capacities, social networks, and small-scale formal and informal institutions. Based on previous experiences and research, this may have grave consequences and render the COVID-19 response counter-productive:

  1. Local institutions are people’s first and very often only line of defence against crises. Where top-down policies don’t reach out to communities to provide services and when people cannot rely on local institutions, they become increasingly vulnerable. Why close schools instead of mobilising teachers to help spread messages about personal hygiene in relation to COVID-19?
  2. In areas where state-society relations are already characterised by mistrust before the crisis, there is a high risk that people will not believe the messages about COVID-19 coming from the authorities and will try to circumvent policies aiming to prevent the spread of the virus. A notorious example was found when the Ebola pandemic erupted in Sierra Leone: people sometimes hid patients to avoid their hospitalisation.
  3. One-sided top-down policies can contribute to spillover crises at the local level, including crises of livelihoods and food security. This can lead to adverse coping mechanisms that actually increase the risks of COVID-19. There are signals that some women in the Eastern DRC who are prohibited to cross the border with Rwanda for their petty trade now resort to transactional sex to feed their families.

Let’s stay alert, or as we say nowadays, let us be ‘woke’ about these consequences of responding to COVID-19. The virus is a hazard, but does not produce the risks that we now see unfolding throughout the world. Top-down measures need to be linked up with bottom-up initiatives and coping mechanisms to effectively deal with the crisis.

Hilhorst’s discussion was part of a webinar titled ‘How COVID empowers local civil society organizations’. Other speakers included Hero Anwar, Program Director at REACH Iraq; Gloria Modong, Executive Director, Titi Foundation South Sudan, and Deputy Chair, NGO Forum South Sudan; and Feliciano Reyna, Executive Director and founder of Accíon Solidaria in Venezuela and representative of Civilis.

The entire webinar can be (re-)watched here: https://www.kuno-platform.nl/events/kuno-covid-cafe-how-covid-empowers-local-civil-society-organizations-in-the-south/

This article is part of a series about the coronavirus crisis. Read all articles of this series here.

Thea Hilhorst

About the author:

Dorothea Hilhorst is Professor of Humanitarian Aid and Reconstruction at the International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University Rotterdam. She is a regular author for Bliss. Read all her posts here.

Title Image Credit: Gwydion M. Williams on Flickr

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COVID-19 | How ‘COVID-19 hunger’ threatens the future of many by Jimena Pacheco

COVID-19 | How ‘COVID-19 hunger’ threatens the future of many by Jimena Pacheco

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COVID-19 | Revaluing essential workers by Karin Astrid Siegmann

This year we are celebrating Labour Day in a very different way—the world we live in has changed dramatically over the past few months because of the COVID-19 pandemic and our collective and individual responses to it. As economies are shut down, many people are for the first time realizing that essential workers keep the cogs of societies oiled and turning. Yet many essential workers remain underpaid and underappreciated. We should realize that these workers are nurturers and deserve living dignified lives that can only be achieved if our economic system is critically examined and transformed.


A new hero has emerged in the wake of measures to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus: the essential worker. A global crisis like the one we are facing now raises our awareness about how essential care and food are for human flourishing. The underlying logic is very simple: essential workers are life-making rather than product- or profit-making. Care and food workers therefore top the list of occupations whose work is critical to the COVID-19 response that many governments have published.

Amidst collective clapping for nurses and radio spots praising the role of domestic workers for containing the coronavirus, it is easy to forget that today’s essential workers were the precariat of the old normal. Around the world, care and food workers find themselves at the bottom rung of wage and social hierarchies. In Pakistan, for instance, earning the minimum wage remains a distant dream for the vast informal workforce in agriculture and domestic service. For female workers, this income poverty is aggravated by a wide gender wage gap. Female community health workers called ‘Lady Health Workers’ have been recognised as key to the improvement in maternal and child health indicators in rural Pakistan since the 1990s. Yet, for many years, these vital medical professionals were paid ‘stipends’ at half the minimum wage and not offered regular contracts like other public employees.

This pattern is not much different in a rich country like the Netherlands where I live. Here, the majority of farmworkers are migrants from Central and Eastern Europe on zero-hour contracts. Their hard work in horticulture has turned agricultural export income in the Netherlands into the world’s second highest. Yet, their employment contracts provide neither work nor income security for themselves. Many domestic workers who raise their Dutch employers’ children and care for elderly persons are undocumented migrants whose precarious legal status prevents them from realising the few rights to social protection that they are entitled to. The status of their work is the tail lamp of common classifications of occupational prestige. Only sex workers fare worse in terms of social stigma, while their work satisfies the human ‘skin hunger’ that has turned into a veritable famine in the context of corona-preventing quarantine.

Thus, while symbolic and literal applause for essential workers reveal a level of cognisance of their importance, in fact, the coronavirus crisis even aggravates these workers’ precarity. More often than not, the additional workload for medical personnel and domestic workers to provide quality emergency care to infected persons and prevent further spread of the pandemic through cleanliness and hygiene is not balanced with overtime work compensation. Pakistan’s Lady Health Workers have even seen cuts in their anyway meagre compensation.

In addition, many migrant domestic and sex workers have lost their jobs, but their legal status and/or their occupation’s stigma imply that they are not entitled to government relief packages. Migrant food workers face a cruel choice between infection at work, in crammed transport or accommodation quarters where social distancing is impossible, or the loss of their job and livelihood. Leyva del Río and Medappa hit the nail on the head when concluding that: “The ‘heroes’ of this crisis, those who are sustaining our lives, are barely able to sustain theirs.”

While many observers now demand a revaluation of essential work in a new, post-corona ‘normal’[1], the examples above demonstrate that this is unlikely to be an automatic consequence of the new symbolic recognition of the importance of food and care for our wellbeing. In contrast, they flag that the ongoing crisis is likely to further erode life-sustaining activities. How can this revaluation be achieved, then?

Historically, higher wages, better social protection and more recognition have resulted from workers’ collective struggles. Falling through the cracks of government support in rich and poor countries alike, that’s what today’s essential workers are doing, too. In the Netherlands, for instance, organised migrant domestic workers and sex workers have set up emergency funds, called on clients to continue to support them for as long as the crisis continues, and demanded social security independent of immigration and employment status from the Dutch government.

Given the commonality of their concerns, if networked, these struggles have huge potential to shape a post-corona future that provides essential workers with the recognition they deserve. The call to listen to and take on board essential workers’ own insights in reforms towards greater labour justice and more nurturing societies is the shared starting point of many food and care workers’ organisations. They typically agree that the intersecting hierarchies of gender, race, sexuality and immigration status that condition the precarity of their work and lives need to be addressed head-on in moves towards greater rights and respect. Last but not least, a choir of diverse, yet, united essential workers’ voices is more likely to add volume to their demand for recognition, decent working conditions and inclusive social protection for all workers – and evoke positive public responses.

These suggestions are not some unworldly utopia, but reflect existing, encouraging practices. A few years back, I asked a Mexican domestic worker from Texas why she had travelled all the way to Ohio to join the rally of an organisation demanding justice for Florida’s migrant farmworkers. Her answer was: “They support our struggles, we support theirs.” The demand to value people over profit unites them.

These are some starting points for how the ongoing coronavirus crisis can teach our societies whose work matters most for nurturing humans. Let’s not waste this opportunity.


I am grateful to Thierry Schaffauser, STRASS for his thoughtful feedback on an earlier draft of this post.
[1] It is encouraging to witness that a diverse group of colleagues formulates and shares similar ideas (e.g. Ebata et al. 2020, Jaffe 2020, Koebe et al. 2020, Leyva del Río and Medappa 2020, Mezzadri 2020). The ideas outlined here are also in line with and specify the demands of broader visions for sustainable post-Corona scenarios (see e.g. https://www.degrowth.info/en/feminisms-and-degrowth-alliance-fada/collective-research-notebook/ , https://www.gndforeurope.com/covid and https://braveneweurope.com/manifesto-for-a-more-sustainable-and-fairer-netherlands-after-corona ).

This article is part of a series about the coronavirus crisis. Find more articles of this series here.


photo-KarinSiegmann-fromISSwebsiteAbout the author:

Karin Astrid Siegmann is a senior lecturer in gender & labour economics at ISS.

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