The novel coronavirus has forced us to collectively examine the interdependencies in our everyday lives, revealing what it takes to keep a household functioning and who and what we all rely on in order to carry out waged work.
Rainbows with the message “Ça va bien aller” or “It’s going to be okay” abound, reminding us that hope, compassion and collective action are thankfully abundant, but for a large number of us, the rupture from everyday life and the pressures to perform multiple caring and work responsibilities while confined at home often means rising tensions and, for many, serious mental health crises.
What has become clearer than ever is how central care work is to the functioning of our society.
- Black women fill many caregiving jobs, but more by constraint than by choice
- ‘Underpaid and undervalued’: Filipino communities face disproportionate impact from COVID-19
The majority of frontline care workers are women, which includes refugees and a large proportion from racialized communities. We depend on them to fill essential jobs, cleaning and caring for patients, the elderly, and young children and taking health risks outside the home in hospitals, nursing homes, and emergency daycares while the rest of us stay home to curb the spread of the virus. With the exception of doctors, their work is precarious and undervalued in our current system.
At home, now the place of work, leisure, schooling, and, for some, violence and fear, care work is largely invisible. Thousands of couples and single parents are at breaking point, suddenly without any support system in place, attempting to care for infants or homeschool children while maintaining full-time jobs, many simply trying to meet the basic needs of children who have special needs.
As the United Nations recently warned, gender inequality has been greatly exacerbated under these conditions. As we struggle to juggle work with family responsibilities and an intensified load of domestic duties, we see with new clarity how we ordinarily depend on teachers, childcare workers, cleaners, and orderlies. While we attempt to manage without them, we are painfully reminded that women continue to pick up the lion’s share of the additional domestic labour, including meeting the physical and emotional needs of others at home.
COVID-19 has also cast a glaring light on a deeper social disease, with domestic violence rates spiking dramatically as victims, mainly women, are trapped with violent or abusive spouses, with limited support for their reproductive or mental health. Global calls to action have emphasized the magnitude of the mental health consequences of the virus itself as well as the indirect mental health effects of physical distancing, media consumption, and caregiving across the lifespan. To mitigate these effects, whether helping people to cope with loneliness, burnout, anomie, anxiety, depression, domestic violence, or suicidality, we return to the centrality of care work.
It won’t be life as we knew it that we return to after the quarantine is over, nor should it be. The pandemic has unsettled fundamental assumptions that we had to take for granted for our society to function as it did — false assumptions about the independence of traditional nuclear households and about what labour we consider most valuable. It has shown us that many of those we now deem essential in a crisis of life and death are those who are frequently most vulnerable.
If the coronavirus has revealed processes and people that were often invisible, we should begin to create social transformations that recognize these realities. At a policy level, we need to debate how to make things more equitable through, for example, extended wage supplements for essential workers when services reopen, sustained support and subsidies to make care of children and older people feasible for those who also maintain paid work, and appropriate recognition, protection and compensation for careworkers who take additional health risks.
An event as jarring as a pandemic should force us to create a new vision of our future, one that puts at its heart the value of taking care of each other.
Suparna Choudhury is assistant professor in psychiatry at McGill University. Millie Tresierra is a birth and postpartum doula. Both are members of Family Care Collective, Montreal. Courtney Kirkby is a health practitioner at the Tiger Lotus Coop for reproductive health. Leonora Gangadeen-King is a PhD candidate in child and maternal health, McGill University, and member of the Tiger Lotus Coop for reproductive health.