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Like many of us, when tennis great Venus Williams reflects back on the past year, she says the COVID-19 pandemic has made her “live one day at a time.”
“It was one of those moments when you realize you can’t control it all, so you have to be able to adjust to life and, after that point, not take anything for granted,” Williams told Healthline. “It’s those simple things you took for granted, like not being able to see your family.”
For Williams, winner of seven Grand Slam titles, it was especially painful. She lives next door to her mom — who is just a “15-second walk away” — but couldn’t physically see her for weeks on end.
These abrupt changes to how we live, where we can go, and our sense of safety and security have been on Williams’ mind as the United States starts to gradually move to a new stage of the pandemic, with vaccinations making it possible for more people to ease back to in-person gatherings, like sporting events.
Williams recently joined the likes of Lady Gaga, Jennifer Lopez, and Michael B. Jordan in a partnership with the International WELL Building Institute and its WELL Health-Safety Rating in a campaign to promote healthier, safer, and secure indoor spaces as we start to gather indoors again.
The five-time Wimbledon champion and four-time Olympic gold medalist told Healthline that how we interact with our spaces isn’t the only societal shift that’s been on her mind as we confront a changing world in the pandemic’s wake.
A longtime advocate for gender equality, Williams said the reckonings we’ve seen over gender and racial inequities, discrimination, and social justice over the past year are conversations we all need to be having right now.
Back in March, Williams penned an essay for British Vogue on the ways she is using her massive platform to tackle global pay inequality. It’s an issue that hits close to home.
After decades of the likes of Billie Jean King’s advocacy for equal pay between male and female players, it wasn’t until 2007 when Williams earned equal prize money to her male counterparts — becoming the first woman in history to hit that mark.
Williams’ big serve reverberated through tennis and the professional sports world at large, but is relevant today in the face of the inequities both exposed and exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
To begin with, women in the United States only made 82 cents for every dollar a man made in 2019, according to the Census Bureau. Before the pandemic, the World Economic Forum predicted it would take 257 years to close the gender pay gap globally.
That’s all been made worse by the pandemic. Industries that have been particularly affected by the global health crisis — healthcare, education, and retail — have stark pay inequities to begin with, according to the Department of Commerce.
The way the pandemic affected these industries specifically can have a domino effect on employees’ health and well-being overall.
Low pay can affect quality of life, access to healthcare, and paying for rent and food — making life difficult for people already vulnerable in our society.
Many people particularly affected by the pandemic are People of Color, with COVID-19 especially impacting Black Americans.
“The pandemic has definitely made the problem more intense and it’s so important for people to know about the issues facing women — we’ve disproportionately been affected by the pandemic and women are taking on many roles in the home, in having to leave their work, take less hours in order to make sure things in the home are being taken care of,” Williams said.
“For example, women work heavily in hospitality, which has been extremely affected by the pandemic,” Williams added. “So much has happened this year and so much education needs to happen. We all have to be a part of the solution, both men and women.”
When asked exactly how the pandemic has worsened these kinds of systemic inequities, Jamila Taylor, PhD, director of healthcare reform and senior fellow at The Century Foundation, told Healthline that it’s crucial that any conversations about these issues discuss how the coronavirus affected People of Color and people who live in low-income households.
“Even for those who may want to ignore it, it’s hard to look away from news story after news story of miles-long lines at food pantries, elevated levels of job loss, and families grappling with a lack of child care, not to mention a healthcare system that was ill-equipped before the pandemic to handle the countless cases and deaths due to COVID-19,” said Taylor, who is not affiliated with any of Williams’ awareness campaigns or initiatives.
Taylor echoed Williams when she said many of the women — especially women of color — acutely impacted by pay inequality found themselves in an almost impossible situation the past year, needing to protect their health while also weathering the challenges brought on by these economic inequities.
“Women of color are most likely to work in frontline, low-wage jobs that make them vulnerable to COVID-19. These jobs also lack worker protections and paid leave,” Taylor explained. “Women of color, particularly Black and Hispanic women, are also most likely to be the breadwinners in the family. They can’t afford to get sick and be out of work because they shoulder the responsibility of taking care of their families.”
Williams said while none of these problems have certainly been solved during the pandemic, it forced all of us to have difficult, needed conversations.
She said these conversations are key if we want to make a more just society, and address the needs of groups like Black women who have often been under-acknowledged, targeted by systemic racism and misogyny, and at times completely ignored.
“I think the last year we saw [that] we started to have a lot of conversations that just weren’t happening before, and if we aren’t talking about it, if we aren’t taking action about it, then nothing gets done,” Williams said.
She started her own #PrivilegeTax movement to raise funds for Girls Inc.
“I am excited to start that conversation to do work to make donations to organizations like Girls Inc. that are working with girls in greater Los Angeles, right in Compton [California] where I’m from,” she said. “This is so African Americans and minorities and people who have been marginalized in the past are having that opportunity to be heard and have that equal opportunity to be their best.”
While all these conversations are being had, is enough being done?
Taylor, who is working to build on and improve the Affordable Care Act (ACA) so the United States can reach better, high-quality, affordable, and universal healthcare coverage, said there have been “advancements in expanding healthcare coverage,” for instance under the Biden administration.
Better and more accessible healthcare is certainly key in building a more equitable society and closing some of these societal gaps.
Taylor cited the reopening of the ACA marketplace to people who lost healthcare coverage during the pandemic and the American Rescue Plan Act, which included expanded ACA premium tax credits and continued effort to expand Medicaid, as positive signs of change in recent months.
“In recent weeks, the CDC even declared racism as a serious threat to the public’s health. These are all steps in the right direction. I hope to see a more actionable, whole of government approach to tackling the pervasiveness of racism within America’s healthcare system,” Taylor said.
“This will be required if America is to ever get ahead an unequal system and the vast racial health disparities that are the result of it,” she explained.
In her essay for British Vogue, Williams wrote: “None of these things are possible without men being part of the solution. Sexism isn’t a women’s issue any more than racism is a Black issue. Men need to understand gender equality is about equal opportunities for women rather than men relinquishing power.”
When asked whether enough men — and those adjacent to the privileges of our society — are engaging in gender equality, Williams said she thinks they are but they “are not always following up on those conversations.”
She said a vivid example is Women’s History Month, which rolls around every March, but by April “no one is talking about it.”
Williams said it’s key that we all engage productively. So much has happened in the past year that it is easy to lean into anger, but she said that “doesn’t feel good.”
“In order to let go of that anger, you have to just lead with love… and also be part of the solution,” Williams said. “So, instead of someone who is angry who might post a meme every now and then, actually get out there and do something in the community, be a part of the solution.”
Williams said she believes the key to raising awareness and affecting real change comes from fostering ongoing conversations that involve everyone and encourages them “to be a part of that solution.”
She said that means going beyond getting involved during International Women’s Day in March or a specific awareness initiative for a brief moment. Instead, Williams said it should be a “year-round” level of engagement.
“This conversation is not over. It’s something I’ve lived through personally in my own life and experience, so I know what that feels like,” Williams said. “No one should have to go through that, and there’s a lot of work to be done, and I’m passionate about taking that on.”
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