Covid Operations: Stop intoning “bearing the brunt”

The emergence and efflorescence of Covid-19 has produced its own distinct discourse: social distancing, flatten the curve, social isolation, care mongering, and the list goes on. Words matter, rhetoric matters. One phrase that has been recycled through the interpretive landscape of dismay and disorder is “bearing the brunt”. Let’s consider that.

“Bearing the brunt” has blossomed in the past few weeks. How Women Will Bear the Brunt of This Pandemic. “Perhaps the greatest economic lesson the U.S. will glean from the coronavirus is not only that slow-acting fiscal policy leaves the vulnerable more vulnerable. It’s also that any fiscal policy, slow-acting or not, without the gender lens leaves women to bear the brunt of a financial crisis.” “Poverty experts said that in times of natural disasters and large-scale emergencies, low-income families who are already living on tight budgets with overdue bills, unstable housing, poor health care and unsteady employment often bear the brunt of the pain.” “The lowest-wage workers will bear the brunt of the layoffs.” “Together, we can create systems built to ensure that low-income communities and communities of color do not repeatedly bear the brunt of acts of nature like the coronavirus, or the human-made acts of inequitable laws and policies.” “As more countries fight to curb increasing numbers of Covid-19 infections, a virus of fear is sweeping the globe – and the most vulnerable in our communities are bearing the brunt of it.” These are just a few examples from the last few days.

Individually, the statements are incisive, perceptive, critical, but taken together, they suggest something else, a way in which the phrase “bearing the brunt” is meant to suggest that the author is somehow both insightful and compassionate. We care about those bear the brunt … don’t we?

Three articles in one day: “Black women bear the brunt of domestic violence”; “lesbians bear the brunt of military discharges”; “children bear the brunt of the deepening economic crisis”. Those three articles appeared in one day … in October 2009. On another day, in December 2009, we learned that in KwaZulu Natal urban women bear the brunt of AIDS, while in Honduras, women bear the brunt of human rights abuses. In 2010, when food prices soared, analysts explained that the poorest would bear the brunt.

Last year, the climate crisis produced a crop of brunt bearings. In a just a few weeks, the following appeared. “Bangladesh’s rural families bear the brunt of climate change … Households headed by women are under even greater pressure.” “Women bear the brunt of extreme weather events because they lack economic, political and legal power.” “Women and children often bear the brunt of water shortages.” “The female population is more likely to bear the brunt of natural disasters.” “In less-developed regions, it falls to women to gather food and water for their families. If crops can’t grow, those women will lose both their livelihoods and their food source. At the same time, as extreme weather events become more frequent, huge populations of women and families are forced to leave their homes. Women will bear the brunt of the crisis.” “It is the world’s most vulnerable people who are made to bear the brunt of climate change, though they are the least responsible for causing it, and are ill-equipped to deal with the consequences.” “Feminism helps me understand what underpins our climate crisis — systems like extractivism, patriarchy, and capitalism. Feminism helps us see the genderdifferentiated impacts of climate breakdown and how women disproportionately bear the brunt of the harm.” “Women farmers bear the brunt of the crisis—and may be the key to limiting its impact. But that’s only possible if there is gender equality in the agriculture sector.” “Those with fewer resources are bearing the brunt of the crisis, and many of the world’s poorest are women. In times of scarcity it’s often mothers who go without to make sure their families can eat. When extreme weather hits, because women still primarily look after children and the elderly, they are the last to evacuate; leading to higher female death tolls. Around 90% of the 150,000 people killed in the 1991 Bangladesh cyclone were women.”

What does “bearing the brunt” mean, and why must women and childrenfulfill that role? Can community exist without some group, and specifically women and children, bearing the brunt? A brunt is “an assault, charge, onset, violent attack….The shock, violence, or force (of an attack)…. The chief stress or violence; crisis.” To bear can mean so many things, from carry to bring forth fruit or offspring, but when it comes to bearing the brunt, it means “to suffer without succumbing, to sustain without giving way, to endure.” Bearing the brunt is an acceptable facet of everyday life and, as such, is a perversion of any sense of justice or wellbeing. Women “bear the brunt” in a social, economic, political order in which peace, wellbeing, justice, prosperity, joy are understood as military engagements. In that world, rights are hollow, reconciliation is empty, and love is abandoned. This is not unprecedented. To the contrary, it is us, and has been for decades.

(Image Credit: Al Jazeera / Muhammad Ansi / John Jay College)

About Dan Moshenberg

Dan Moshenberg is an organizer educator who has worked with various social movements in the United States and South Africa. Find him on Twitter at @danwibg.