A message with email signoffs adapted for use during the coronavirus pandemic has been doing the rounds, one of the many memes that this crisis has generated. The usual ‘Best’, ‘Sent from my iPhone’, and ‘Take care’ have been replaced by ‘Best (but could be better), ‘Sent from my living room’, and ‘Take Care – no but really’. It seems that, perhaps for the first time, people actually want to know the answer to ‘How are you?’ and that it is acceptable to venture past the cursory ‘I’m fine, thanks, and you?’ This change in the way we communicate with each other may have been prompted by a sense of unity in feeling lonely, anxious, and insecure. But perhaps this change is also a realisation, on a collective level, of what is absolutely essential to the survival and sustenance of society – care.
Ethic of care
When the things that distract us every day – the emails that need to be sent, the profits that need to be calculated, the booking that needs to be made at the new restaurant – are stripped back to make space to deal with a crisis, we may arrive at an awkward realisation. That as urgent as we may believe our everyday activities in times of ‘normalcy’ to be, they are indeed (quite literally) not matters of life and death. At this moment, people are thinking much more closely about provision of healthcare, neighbourhood support groups, manufacture of ventilators and masks, sanitation, food production, and delivery services. Is this what a society premised on the ethic of care look like?
Feminists have long engaged with the ethic of care, emphasising the interrelation and interdependence of existence, including both human-human and human-animal/environment relationships. That is, our survival, rather than atomistic, is reliant on the support, nutrition, and care provided by those around us. With neighbourhood mutual aid and ‘caremongering’ groups cropping up in different parts of the world, the need for generosity and cooperation, rather than individual conservation, is evident. Care may be practiced among individuals – within a household, a neighbourhood, or a community – but care, as essential for the sustenance of society, is/should be also a concern of the state. More importantly, whether or not the state adequately supports and funds care, it has to somehow get done because we simply cannot function without care. It is, therefore, crucial to understand care not only as an abstract value but as material labour, and to pose the question – who does the work of care and under what conditions? Or, how is care work differentially distributed, how does it generate and maintain inequalities?
Inequalities of care
As those of us who can are compelled to work from our homes, at our computers, organising zoom meetings, we are starting to wonder if this will be the new normal. Of course, these facilities are not new, but we know that more women than men take up ‘flexible working’ arrangements where they are available. This may be because flexible working (and work/life balance for that matter) are targeted to and perceived to be for the benefit of women (within assumption of a heteronormative framework). If men worry that flexible working will make them feel excluded, their fear is not unfounded. Could working from home become the new normal given current circumstances? Perhaps. But will it imply equality of opportunity? It would be simplistic to assume that normalising working from home is going to accelerate fairness in gender division of housework and care work. Indeed, the discourse of pandemic-induced productivity is gendered – who is taking charge of home-schooling children, while baking a banana bread, and holding a perfect yoga pose for inner peace (looking at you, Man Who Has It All)?
In India, where I am right now, families (read women) are facing the prospect of housework without help from their maids. Many celebrities have been posting viral videos and photos of themselves doing (pretty basic) household chores while urging everyone to stay at home. Except that the people who usually do their household chores (and do not expect to be applauded for it, only a fair wage, which they mostly do not get) have been prevented by the Indian government from going home. Thousands of migrant workers have walked hundreds of kilometres only to die of exhaustion or to be told to turn back and stay put without provisions for them in cities or for their families in villages. Contrary to the claims of the rich that this virus is a ‘great equaliser’ (solely because it is affecting those who jet around the world), the pandemic has highlighted inequalities that are otherwise rendered invisible in our everyday lives. The elite are taken care of in their (literal, I am not making any of this up) elite havens and seem to magically have access to Covid testing as soon as they sneeze, while the masses are told to wait it out or, you know, it’s very simple – develop herd immunity.
Essential work and skills
At the risk of overusing the word ‘crisis’ (but how else can we explain what we are collectively going through right now?), there is an obvious link between inequalities in healthcare and the erosion of welfare provision under a global shift towards neoliberalism – it is a crisis of care. In the UK, the National Health Service is groaning as the number of Covid19 patients continues to rise. In India, where health spending accounted for only 1.28 per cent of the gross domestic product estimate in 2017-18, doctors have expressed concerns over lack of public hospitals and intensive care unit beds. With extremely limited resources for care, the provision of health services has been patchy and unequal as the pandemic has accelerated. But minimising care funding also implies a lack of care for care providers. In recent days, as the NHS continues to struggle, three doctors have died and many healthcare professionals have threatened to quit over lack of protective gear.
Besides healthcare professionals, sanitation workers around the world are on the frontline too, ensuring that our hospitals and streets are hygienic, sanitised, and livable. Relegated as ‘unskilled’ or ‘low-skill’, cleaning is one of the lowest paid categories of work, and tends to employ the most marginalised people – Black and low caste people. Often done in hours when it is not visible, cleaning of our public spaces is something we hardly encounter or even acknowledge in our daily lives. Yet, it is work that (as is very obvious right now) we absolutely cannot survive without. It is only because sanitation workers are continuing to dispose of our waste, including medical waste, often in unsanitary conditions themselves, that we are able to sustain ourselves. Similar to cleaners, many factory workers are out there, manufacturing necessary items, such as, masks, hand sanitisers, and ventilators. While we have headlines about big wigs like Louis Vuitton and H&M offering to produce these items, we have hardly heard about workers who are foregoing the luxury of staying at home to enable social sustenance.
The value of care
This crisis has, perhaps only inadvertently, led us to rethink what work is truly essential, what skills it involves, and indeed what its value should be. If cleaning is an essential service, one that we simply cannot do without, why are cleaners paid so little? If factory workers are needed to manufacture essentials, why do they not get better work protection? If healthcare workers are required at the frontline of this crisis, why are there not sufficient funds to ensure their wellbeing too? It is not surprising that in their proposals to deal with the coronavirus outbreak, various countries have subtly highlighted a dichotomy between ‘economy/business impact’ and ‘people/health impact’, or simply put, between the (neoliberal) economy and people. But the question still begs to be asked – what is the economy for if not people?
Lockdowns in various parts of the world have already slowed down, and will continue to slow down, economic activity. While these will have longer term impact on people’s employment, savings, and income, this crisis is forcing us to face bigger issues – suddenly adequate provision of healthcare, universal basic income, and revision of work practices have taken on a charge. The relegation of care to a secondary status, with income-generation, profits, and growth taking precedence, leads to the undervaluation of care provision and care providers in interpersonal, state, and global practices. Perhaps this is the moment to imagine an economy for the people – an economy, a world, built on care (no but really).
Asiya Islam is a Junior Research Fellow at Newnham College, University of Cambridge.