There’s no ‘pause’ button for care
The Coronavirus is highlighting just how essential care work – paid and unpaid – is to our economy, health and survival. The idea that we are in an economic ‘shutdown’ is a misnomer.
Huge amounts of unpaid care work are forcing many (mainly women) to work overtime at home – as ‘teachers’, ‘cleaners’, ‘cooks’ and ‘nurses’.
While many sectors have been scaled down or put on hold, we cannot similarly press ‘pause’ on the life-sustaining carework that is currently holding up our households, communities, care homes and hospitals.
It’s a telling thought experiment to think what would happen to projections of the world’s declining GDP figures if unpaid care work was included in GDP calculations, as feminist economists have long been arguing for (hint: Global GDP would increase by at least eight per cent).
Care and the fault-lines of inequality
The pandemic is exposing and exploiting existing gender and economic inequalities, which have for centuries marginalized and invisibilized women’s labour. In the words of an unpaid carer in the U.K., highlighted in Oxfam’s latest briefing paper, “We were invisible before, and now behind closed doors I think we are more so.” These fault-lines run deep. Before COVID-19, heavy and unequal care responsibilities were already trapping women in time and income poverty and locking them out of public and political life, with women providing 12.5 billion hours of unpaid care work per day – three times more than men. In Bolivia, 42 per cent of women say unpaid care work is the biggest obstacle to their political participation.
It has taken a global pandemic and nearly 250,000 deaths to spark public outrage in governments’ chronic underinvestment in health and social care infrastructure weakened by debt, austerity and regressive taxes, and for governments to consider care workers as ‘essential’. Governments have been slow to recognize the needs of domestic workers – the majority of which are women and 90 per cent of which do not have access to social security and half of which have no limits on their weekly hours – but quick to agree to massive bailouts for airlines and fossil fuel industries. Meanwhile, billionaires have profited to the tune of $308 billion since the start of the pandemic.
This is an inequality crisis as much as it is a public health crisis – and care is at the core.
Coronavirus and care: Pushing women further to the margins
Oxfam research has shown that women in rural areas of sub-Saharan Africa, already spend up to four hours a day collecting water. Under COVID-19, women – particularly those living in poverty – are spending even longer hours on essential care tasks outside the home such as such as shopping at the market, getting medicine, or queuing for water – all which put them at higher risk of exposure to the disease. With school closures, 320 million children will miss out on free school meals – it will likely be women who step up to fill this gap or risk having their children go hungry.
In addition, in many of these contexts, government-provided social protection and safety nets are limited or non existent. Overstretched care systems and closures of schools and services mean women, particularly those living in poverty and precarity, are compensating by undertaking longer shifts in poorer conditions of employment as well as doing additional unpaid care work at home. Much like with Ebola, this comes at a great cost to women’s health, time, economic independence and political representation.
Paid care workers, two thirds of which are women, are more likely to be exposed to the virus. In Italy and Spain, COVID-19 infections among female health workers are twice that of their male counterparts. In addition, unpaid carers are increasingly looking after people infected by COVID-19 without any personal protective equipment. Evidence from the UK and the US shows how inequalities based on gender intersect with those based on income, ethnicity, race and migrant status to leave certain groups even worse off.
Build Back Better – A Caring, Green and Feminist Future
Most of the world still finds itself in the pre-peak or peak of this pandemic. Despite a bludgeoning tirade of bad news stories from around the world, the full scale and scope of the damage is not yet fully known. But the response is in process – the stimulus, the post-pandemic planning and the visioning has begun. Activists, feminists and world leaders remind us that the pandemic is a moment for radical thinking, that we must break with the past. As Arundhati Roy so eloquently put it: “[The pandemic] is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.” We cannot accept a return to normal. ‘Normal’ hasn’t worked for women and it doesn’t work for society.
We are already witnessing green shoots through the cracks of our extractive economic system in the form of solidarity initiatives, community support, and local organizing. In the UK alone, 3,400 local mutual aid associations have sprung up, while in Chile, feminist groups have launched an emergency plan collectively organizing for the care of populations at risk. These efforts need to be backed up with systemic political and economic change that is transformative and informed by science, justice and women’s voices. For this we can look to the US State of Hawai’i, Dutch academics or the Feminist Green New Deal Alliance and feminist collectives from the global south.
Hawai’i’s historic feminist economic recovery plan is particularly inspiring. It calls for new types of leadership, centering the voices of women from marginalized communities, caregivers and those who represent feminist movements in COVID-19 response and recovery. It demands that economies be reoriented from extractive industries towards investments in care and other “green” sectors funded through progressive taxation.
Care work is the vital, low-carbon work that knits society together from young to old and from household to hospital. Our transition through the portal requires us to be radical: re-valuing and re-centering care as the core of a re-imagined just, feminist economy.
Written by Anam Parvez Butt, Gender Justice Research Lead at Oxfam GB; Amber Parkes, Program Advisor for Women's Economic Empowerment and Care at Oxfam; and Dana Stefov, Women's Rights Specialist for Policy and Advocacy at Oxfam Canada.