A Gendered Perspective on the Pandemic
Covid-19 has brought to the surface a long-lingering crisis of care under neoliberal capitalism, revealing a massive underinvestment in the care economy. The impact of the crisis on carers – disproportionately women – has been especially severe, both physically and economically. Similarly, it is women who were particularly impacted by an increase in domestic violence during lockdown.
The Covid-19 pandemic has served as a powerful reminder of a basic aspect of the human condition: our profound vulnerability and dependence on each other. We are vulnerable to disease and economic deprivation, and we depend on each other to be cared for and taken care of. The pandemic is thus unlike other recent large-scale disruptions of our globally networked world. While the effects of the 2008 financial crisis were equally widespread and the impacts massive, the pandemic, in addition, kills visibly. It has needed not only economic interventions, but also massive interventions of care. The most manifest has been the care provided by hospitals; but there has also been a lot of additional care taking, of nursing and nurturing, of sympathising and supporting, of consoling and comforting – much of it informal and unpaid.
The pandemic has painfully brought to the surface a long-lingering crisis of care under neoliberal capitalism. Though it should be easy to agree that maintaining life should be a key purpose of our economy, existing policies have utterly marginalised the labour and people involved in what feminist political economists have called “the production of life.” Care labour – disproportionately performed by women and mostly unpaid – continues to serve as a free input into the economy, while welfare systems – from health care to elder care – continue to be framed as a drain on societies.existing policies have utterly marginalised the labour and people involved in what feminist political economists have called “the production of life” The tendency is particularly pronounced in countries with strong neoliberal ideologies, such as the US and the UK; but discourses that separate the health of people from the health of the economy flourish around the world.
Looking at the pandemic through the lens of care shines a bright light on the pathologies of contemporary patriarchy. To illustrate this point, I pick up three specific themes that have emerged in the course of the crisis: the centrality of care labour; the spike in domestic violence; and celebrations of women’s political leadership.
The underinvestment in the care economy was laid glaringly bare in the images of health care workers having to cope with inadequate equipment, “of underpaid, overworked nurses having to make masks out of garbage bin liners and old raincoats, risking everything to bring succor to the sick.” Women, of course, make up the bulk of nursing staff globally – from 65 percent in Africa to 86 percent in the Americas – working in strongly hierarchical relationships under mostly male doctors, with little decision-making power and significantly less pay. Women are also in the front line at nursing homes and in home health care, and they perform the bulk of unpaid home care. While the pandemic has brought home to most the profoundly important work of nurses, the care labour performed outside hospitals has been largely overlooked.Bereft of adequate protective equipment, workers in nursing homes have been left to fend for themselves Bereft of adequate protective equipment, workers in nursing homes have been left to fend for themselves, with frequently lethal consequences.
In private homes, care often involves paid domestic workers, many of them migrants. Reports from Asia have revealed an increased workload for domestic workers tending to people confined in their homes. In contrast, in Europe, domestic workers have been vulnerable to dismissal. In Geneva, 75 percent of those requiring food assistance during the crisis – and lining up to receive their bag of basic groceries at Les Vernets on Saturdays – have been women, many domestic workers illegally laid off by their employers. What value is attached to labour so easily discarded while wantonly exploited when needed? The exclusion from social security of so many carers reflects the utter devaluation of their life-sustaining labour.
While homes emerged as key sites of care during the crisis, domestic violence likewise spiked significantly in the wake of the confinements. In France, calls to domestic violence hotlines increased by 32 percent in the week after the lockdown was imposed; similar increases in rates of incidence were reported from Singapore, Cyprus and Argentina. In China, cases of domestic violence signalled to the police nearly tripled in February 2020 during the peak of the lockdown. Recognising the virulence of the phenomenon, the UN Secretary General expanded his call for a global ceasefire to encompass the battlefield of the home. Predictions of more equal gender divisions of labour resulting from more men working at home have been called into question by the sobering reality of domestic abuse.
As key sites for the production of life, households ensure people are fed daily, cared for when sick and old and properly socialised. In times of crises, they operate as buffers by amplifying these tasks. However, the pandemic has made explicit not only the crucial buffering role of households but also their patriarchal organisation. the pandemic has made explicit not only the crucial buffering role of households but also their patriarchal organization If the spike in domestic violence during the Covid-19 lockdowns is no doubt in part due to an overloading of households, the fact that women constitute most of the victims of such violence is significant. Structured by norms of kinship, households are patriarchal institutions: gender divisions of labour and ideas of male headship are alive and well. But, as women have gained economic independence, these patriarchal practices have become increasingly dysfunctional and a matter of contestation and conflict. Clearly, households need to democratise; but perhaps more importantly, there is also a need for public investment to support households by bolstering public care infrastructure from nurseries to nursing homes…
This bleak picture was brightened by the hopeful message that women leaders have excelled in their handling of the crisis. Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand, Angela Merkel in Germany, Sanna Marin in Finland, Erna Solberg in Norway, Tsai Ing-wen in Taiwan… all have been praised for listening to diverse advice, acting decisively to stop the spread of the virus, implementing wide-spread testing and connecting to people (including children) to comfort them in their distress.Being feminine in this case meant knowing how to be open and how to relate Being feminine in this case meant knowing how to be open and how to relate. It also meant not having to act masculine, i.e. not having to establish oneself as a tough warrior braving the virus or having to worry about being perceived as weak.
The analysis is, of course, tricky: globally, 95 percent of states are headed by men, making women stick out no matter what they do, while most successful male leaders are somewhat invisible (think Justin Trudeau of Canada or Moon Jae-in of Korea). But perhaps more importantly, we need to consider these women in conjunction with the states they lead: these are states with robust social welfare systems, including significant spending on health care, where women more broadly have entered national legislatures and made welfare policies a priority. In other words, these are states that foster care, “an enduring social capacity and practice involving the nurturing of all that is necessary for the welfare and flourishing of human and non-human life”. Such states are also more likely to produce female leaders.
If there is one takeaway from the current crisis, it is the urgency to promote true care economies, that is economies that put providing care and the preservation of life at the centre. Such economies do not relegate social reproduction to the margins and into unsupported households, where it remains an undervalued and feminised task. They provide social security for all and fund robust health care systems, childcare and elder care. They provide universal basic incomes, support domestic workers and give a say to women and gender-non-conforming people, immigrants and racialised populations, the disabled and other marginalised groups. Blueprints for feminist economic recovery plans have emerged, as have calls for a rainbow new deal, a feminist version of the green new deal. There has never been a better time to decisively act on such visions.