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May 15, 2020
By Shirin M Rai (WICID) and Jacqui True (GPS, Monash)
A key aspect of social relations that has been brought into sharp relief during the international COVID-19 crisis, is the labour of women in care work – paid and unpaid. Unpaid care work in households has increased during the pandemic shutdown, with home schooling of children, greater care needs of older persons, and overwhelmed health services. Those on the frontlines of the pandemic are women working in the formal care economy: nurses, nurse aides, teachers, child care workers, aged-care workers, and cleaners. Women make up 67% of the global health workforce and over 80% in some regions. Their situation as "essential workers" involves a gender-specific struggle for recognition of the value of paid and unpaid care labour, and for social redistribution of resources to reflect that equality. A key challenge for governments and international organisations is whether and how they will respond to reliance on this labour to develop policies that recognise, support and regenerate care economies?
As the COVID-19 pandemic has shown, women’s participation in all spheres of life is essential to sustainable development, durable peace and to the realization of human rights. And yet, we seem to be stuck between the competitive individualism of the market and the failure of state socialism and the social democratic welfare state. Women’s labour continues to be overlooked, and unaccounted for, even as the pandemic increases their burdens of social reproduction.
Violence against women has risen sharply, and while there has been a celebration of nurses and care workers, there is little evidence that care work is being better paid and supported. To the contrary, more than one in five healthcare workers in the UK are likely to leave their role as a result of COVID-19. Violence and discrimination against healthcare workers has also been cited in many countries from Mexico to Philippines and Australia. Unpaid care economies continue to be relied on to cushion ‘crisis shocks’, without much thinking about whether additional burdens of care can lead to increased levels of human depletion in such situations. This is an important gap to recognise, as well as a significant challenge, because those who are invisible as producers and workers will be invisible in distribution, both in terms of the allocation of resources and the redistributive policies and services needed to address the crisis, by both the state and non-state actors.
The household is a key unit in mobilising material, ideological and human resources in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic. It is the one constant: from providing food for families, supplying older people and friends with food and medicines, engaging in paid and unpaid care work including health care and contributing to community services, neighbourhood groups, charities. It is then unsurprising that it is under pressure during this pandemic and its consequent lockdown. Gendered expectations of altruism and self-sacrifice are also prominent in times of crisis. Indeed, pro-natalism in the aftermath of crises – building back better with babies – has been a historical pattern.
Crises are often mobilised by the state to shut down democratic critique in the name of (‘the tyranny of’) urgency. The ICNL COVID-19 Civic Freedom Tracker monitors government responses to the pandemic that affect civic freedoms and human rights, focused on emergency laws. For example, there is evidence that the COVID-19 crisis has negatively affected sexual and reproductive rights: Marie Stopes International has predicted that as many as 9.5 million women are at risk of losing access to family planning services as a direct result of the pandemic. In India, to attract investment, many states are giving businesses regulatory holidays, including over layoffs, compensation and decent conditions of work (Sustainable Development Goal 8) including provision of créches and are dismantling further trade union rights of collective bargaining. This needs to be guarded against.
While assumptions are being made about the increasing role of the state in the wake of the crisis, missing from the current discussion of global and economic recovery is the concept of a “regenerative state” that would address gender disparities as it develops policies to recover economies and social life. We would suggest that such an approach is particularly important as we come out of the strict lockdowns in many countries, and as policy options are considered to get the economies going. This is a critical juncture where we could either see an intensification of extremist, xenophobic and populist politics locally and globally or a move towards a more solidaristic, political approach, where states, civil society organisations, and multilateralism win out. We cannot take either as inevitable.
Regeneration is possible in the moment of openness we now encounter as a result of COVID-19’s rupture in business as usual. There is the potential for policy and governance to be re-visioned but this moment of openness will be short-lived and we need to mobilise if we are to see a change in direction in any jurisdiction. We note that such regeneration must include three core elements:
1) rebuilding of social infrastructure – health, education and social care - by recognising the value of the paid and unpaid care economy;
2) a democratic politics of dialogic, deliberative, and participative conversation that attends to issues such as the division of care labour and shadow pandemic of domestic violence and;
3) accountability mechanisms for economic and social rebuilding focused on a bottom-up approach to regeneration with civil society groups, social movement actors, and epistemic communities.
Above all, right now as urgent and new policy responses to COVID-19 are rolling out we need a care audit of every policy and investment to ensure an inclusive and sustainable social and economic recovery and global stability for future generations. The window of opportunity and time to act to build back better is now.
 We use this term to include the following: 1) biological reproduction (including reproducing labour) and with it the provision of the sexual, emotional and affective services that are required to maintain family and intimate relationships; (2) unpaid production in the home of both goods and services, incorporating different forms of care, as well as social provisioning and voluntary work directed at meeting needs in and of the community; (3) reproduction of culture and ideology which stabilizes (and sometimes challenges) dominant social relations (Hoskyns and Rai 2007: 300).