Coronavirus and Care Part 1:
Redefining the Value of Care
This article forms part of our women and coronavirus series.
Every crisis presents a possibility. This crisis, the coronavirus crisis, is shining new light on care and its gendered nature. The good news is that, at the same time that women’s care burden is being exacerbated, society is waking up to the importance of care in our day-to-day lives and our flourishing as human beings. There is a crucial window of opportunity to harness this awareness and push for real change.
In late December 2019, Covid-19 arrived and the world as we knew it swiftly turned upside down. In our coronavirus-world, care (or lack thereof) is a critical issue. The pandemic proportions of this disease require enormous amounts of care at virtually every level of society.
While the virus has brought about an overarching care crisis, many people are experiencing crises in care that are not an inevitable result of the pandemic, but rather are directly linked to the unfit-for-purpose state of public infrastructure and the low value placed upon care in many countries.
For example, in Ireland, we witnessed our nursing homes become centres of a national catastrophe, rather than centres of caring for our elderly and most vulnerable citizens. There have been similar patterns in other congregated residential settings, such as Direct Provision centres. There were issues with a lack of PPE for health-workers, reflective of a broader societal failure to protect the caregivers.
Despite a prevailing narrative that the virus is ‘a great equaliser’, not everyone is being affected equally and experiences of the virus differ significantly. As in previous pandemics, like Ebola and Zika, the gendered impacts of this virus soon became apparent. One of the main reasons for the different impact upon women is the fact that care work (or the labour of care) is highly gendered, whether it is paid or unpaid.
Already, women carry out two-thirds of all care work done around the world, and much of this work is either unpaid or poorly paid. There are studies which show the value of this work is about two-thirds of the total market economy (ca. 10.8 trillion US dollars each year).
In the formal care sector, women are disproportionately impacted by coronavirus as they make up over 70% of the global health and social care workforce, according to WHO figures, and are thus more likely to be exposed in their workplace. If one expands the definition of the care workforce to include other ‘caring’ occupations like cleaners and supermarket cashiers, EIGE data shows women make up 95% of cleaners and workers, and 82% of those working in supermarkets.
Women are also more likely to take on the burden of care at home, and globally women’s domestic burdens are increasing exponentially due to the virus. For these reasons, the pandemic has been called a “crisis for feminism“; and a need to work to shift the balance of care between women and men is evident. In Ireland, a recent CSO report found as follows:
“Women are more likely to report Covid-19 related childcare issues than men. More women than men are caring for a dependent family member or friend because of the crisis and a higher percentage of women are finding it more difficult to work from home with family around than men.”
A NWCI survey also found that 85% of Irish women have increased care responsibilities since COVID-19.
Of course, it is necessary to think deeper than ‘women’ as a single category. The NWCI recently said that Traveller women are twice as likely to be looking after home and family, for instance. And, of the women who make up care workers, particularly in the most precarious, low-status jobs, many are from migrant or ethnic minority backgrounds, something which care feminist Fiona Robinson has referred to as the ‘care drain’. In the UK, it recently emerged that one in three Britons pays a domestic cleaner, and in 93% of cases they are female, and disproportionately women of colour or migrant workers. In Ireland, there are many migrant women workers in our home care sector and in the nursing home sector, some of whom are still living in Ireland’s direct provision system.
These women can face layers of discrimination and lack of access to proper services, as well as heightened risks of exposure to the virus due to their overcrowded living circumstances – yet another example of the failure to protect our caregivers!
These issues have deep roots and are embedded in a broader culture of structural discrimination with gender, racial, class and other dimensions. However, the worsening of these issues due to coronavirus has led to the positive view that the crisis makes them more visible, harder to ignore or sweep under the rug. Another positive is that the crisis is redefining the status of care work in our society. For instance, people in many countries have been lighting candles for and clapping care workers, acknowledging the vital work they do. There has been a societal redefinition of who the essential workers are: the food workers, social workers, cleaners, supermarket assistants, transport workers, home help workers, and those providing support for victims of domestic violence. Many are women.
The virus has revealed our interdependency as a society, and that our health depends on each other; and the value of community and relationships. The realisation that we are only as healthy and protected as our most vulnerable populations is contributing to a growing understanding of the structural challenges around care-giving and access to care in our societies. Undoubtedly, this is causing many people to realise they want to live in a more caring society, and that we need caring policies to flourish as human beings.
There has also been a redefinition of the leadership qualities that are desirable in a crisis, and beyond, with a shift towards praising qualities of care, compassion, and love discernible, prompted in part by the extreme divergence in political response by different national leaders, and public criticism to many of the measures being enacted. This has highlighted the severe problems that arise when politicians don’t ‘care’ about their citizens, including worrying roll-backs on human rights and women’s rights. And – likely due to the lack of women’s involvement in decision-making around the response efforts – many other countries, including Ireland, adopted what might be called ‘uncaring’ or unthinking policies towards women and minority groups – the initial lack of access to the COVID-19 Temporary Wage Subsidy Scheme for women returning from maternity leave here is one example.
Already there is a strong counter-narrative of austerity politics and a return to the status-quo emerging. But coronavirus has shown us that we need policies that will unambiguously value care and care work, and that will work to redistribute care work more fairly; as well as politics which is modelled upon broader caring values such as care for the environment and a Green New Deal. This cannot be a mere topical ointment. It will be necessary to go deep and address the root causes of the feminisation of care and other forms of structural discrimination.
Many actors, including civil society organisations and women’s organisations, have been calling for gender-equal, even feminist policies, both as part of the pandemic-response and beyond. They are demanding transformation across many areas including care. With society waking up to the value of care work and of ‘caring’ as a desirable value in our politicians and their policies, this appears a pivotal moment to harness the dialogues that are happening around care and push to make these policies and politics a reality.
How could such a paradigm shift be achieved?
Coronavirus and Care Part Two will be published tomorrow.
Featured photo by Dominik Lange