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14 May 2020

COVID-19 and the Crisis of ‘Privatized’ Care

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The current crisis has made visible the centrality of quality and affordable medical care. This has been a major point in public discussions and should be addressed by policy makers. The doctors ‘on the front lines’ and their families will, hopefully, not only be hailed as heroes but also receive financial compensation and be rewarded professionally. What appears to be much less discussed is, to stay with the popular war metaphor, the effort of those who do care work, literally, on the home front. Among these are those individuals who take care of the elderly, especially in situations of the collapsing capacities of hospitals and clinics. We focus here, though, on the experiences of a (considerably large) social group to which we belong – parents who have spent over a month juggling work and care responsibilities at home, with the prospect of this situation stretching months into the future and perhaps repeating if such pandemics become part of our life.

During this crisis, many people have been confined to their homes taking care of their children and their education, as well as work

Given the lack of major public discussion on the structural disbalances in what is considered ‘productive’ and ‘reproductive’ work, and the gender aspect of this problem, it is high time for societal reflection that should lead to change in policy. Time is, of course, a privilege that caregiver-workers crucially lack. For working people with children (and especially for single parents), time is always precious and is handled with much care. This crisis, however, has been a move from ‘the hardly manageable’ to ‘the almost impossible’. Of course, for those of us who have jobs and are able to keep them (even if career prospects or new job opportunities diminish with every month of home-schooling/day-caring in the highly competitive job market), the stress is much less than for people who lost their jobs – many of them caregivers (the child-minders, babysitters, cleaners, nurses, and hourly paid teachers, many of whom are women and often migrants). But both groups – those involved in underpaid care work for others, and those in unpaid care work for their own families – have been hit particularly hard by this crisis. This is but one juncture exposing the operation of the capitalist machine that must work towards acceleration.

Our purpose here is not to offer a litany of complaints but a reflection on how the described inequality exacerbated by COVID-19 can be seen, in Arundhati Roy’s phrase, as a portal’ for transferring us into a society where care work receives greater social and economic value and where it is considered beyond personal choice, as a crucial societal function.

Privatization of care

But perhaps we should distinguish first between self-care and care for others. Around early to mid-March this year, the number of people around the world infected with Covid-19 rose sharply. The fear was tangible. Social distancing became a must. Airlines cancelled flights without warning. And people did what people do when they are afraid – thanks also to post-apocalyptic survival genre fantasies – they stockpiled. Toilet paper. Hand soap. This self-care and return to a kind of libertarian, frontier mentality meant that the vulnerable, the other who needed to be cared for, as well as the caretakers of these others, were left in a sorry plight. Doctors and nurses were left without vital protective gear; the elderly, at greatest risk of viral complications, were left even more ‘exposed’.

The health crisis caused by covid 19 has exposed numerous problems in health systems worldwide

We have seen how the individualistic narrative of self-care has been turned from the above less-delightful manifestations to more rarified expressions – utopias of reflection are what our homes should be now. Spaces to stop and think about ourselves as consumers and enablers of late capitalism. Such reflection is all well and timely, but it is the luxurious commodity of the time-haves. For parents with children, ‘home sweet home’ has become a dystopia of chaos. Perhaps behind the experience of this situation as ‘chaotic’ are the self-caring forms of thought and their inevitable social manifestations which have come into sharp relief during this crisis – the increasing cost of health insurances (‘your health is your own business’) and the perceived luxury and commodification of child rearing (‘you decided to have children’ or ‘you can’t have children unless you are totally secure, financially and career-wise’, which never happens for many).

It is hard to imagine working parents deciding to have children these days with no institutional child care available; we did not choose to have children under these conditions. And we can certainly expect a drop in child birth rates among professionals alongside an aggravated culture of competition – at least, if our thinking about care work and its societal function do not change, on personal and institutional levels. We need policy changes to provide actual benefits and incentives to care-givers since otherwise they will fall behind in the capitalist rat-race, as will the vulnerable (the children, the elderly, the sick) who they care for.

Gender inequality

All care work is gendered, and the setback in gender equal practices during the COVID-19 crisis was one of the first issues eloquently diagnosed from feminist perspectives and focused upon by the UN. The more egalitarian work and care patterns – developed in the past decades more consistently in societies that did not experience political and financial crises – have immediately revealed their fragility in the face of the ‘hard facts’, such as who has a more secure and well-paid job, who is expected to work longer and uninterrupted hours, or who can more easily convey to their employer their limited availability due to care responsibilities. While many couples have been diligent in equal sharing of domestic work, collapsing into gender stereotypes and assumptions, especially when the situation needs to be communicated in professional contexts, is almost inevitable.

Nursing is a historically feminized professionNursing is a historically feminized profession
Care work is a historically feminized profession

How can this alarming trend be reversed? Or rather, how can one of the remaining bastions of gender inequality – domestic and care work – be dismantled given its exposure during this crisis? We don’t have clear recipes, but we can hope that, on the one hand, the months of working from home for men with children will highlight the daily scope and practice of care work, move them towards changing their work habits, and create a consciousness of varied work types and conditions. On the other hand, if care work is more recognized and rewarded, from a societal and monetary perspective, we should see more incentive for men to engage in it – and speak about this. This would be a crucial step towards fostering ‘kinder’ work cultures based on cooperation and generating a larger scope of abilities and achievements.

As we speak of the chances that this precarious situation gives us, we should reflect on the lessons to learn from the experience of real or potential vulnerability, our need and reliance on care work, and of being forced to be more multifaceted and multitasking in our daily routines. If we want a society which accommodates and builds upon these experiences and insights, and which treats everyone as possessing a diversity of talents and occupations, we should start reflecting and developing policy proposals already now.

Ksenia Robbe

(Assistant Professor, Chair of European Culture and Literature, University of Groningen)

Hamish Williams

(Affiliated Researcher, Chair of European Culture and Literature, University of Groningen; Humboldt Research Fellow, Friedrich Schiller University Jena)

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