Who guards the ‘guardian angels’ upholding our pandemic response?

COVID-19 presents an opportunity to build a new social compact by granting status for all
Photo: Elesban Landero Berriozábal
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In April, Quebec premier François Legault tweeted a video homage to the “guardian angels who watch over us and who combat the invisible enemy that is COVID-19.” Only six weeks later, Legault rejected calls to regularize the immigration status of many of these same “angels.” Offering regularization to frontline workers without legal immigration status, in his view, flouted rules and encouraged “illegal” crossings into Canada. Still, he noted that he was “very pleased with their work,” and considered Quebec “lucky” to count on such people.

If “guardian angels” are responsible for watching over “us,” then who watches over them?

Despite Legault’s resistance to doing right by undocumented workers on the front lines of the pandemic, the figure of the “guardian angel” has been persuasive, with calls for justice for those who have made sacrifices to care for the elderly in Quebec’s long-term care facilities. Those calls have been amplified (and well justified) by the extraordinary labour of health care workers these last several months.

And yet, calling frontline workers “guardian angels” raises questions. If “guardian angels” are responsible for watching over “us,” then who watches over them? We ask this question in solidarity with migrant justice organizations, whose demands have been clear: a comprehensive and inclusive approach to regularization, with recognition and granting of status rights to all in our society. In pandemic times, our interdependence and the need for mutual care become even more important.

As for who takes care of the “guardian angels,” the answer is twofold.

On the one hand, devastatingly, the answer is no one. Frequently ineligible for health care, exempt from workplace health and safety regulations, and not covered by the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit, those who work on the front lines without immigration status are exceptionally vulnerable to overwork, unpaid wages, workplace injuries and illness. More often than not they are ineligible for health care or unable to access it. In other instances, they face discrimination in medical clinics and hospitals, and frequently do not receive adequate care. Further, asylum seekers are at risk of detention and deportation if their request for regularization is rejected.

It takes a lot of angels in a pandemic to care for the elderly, to keep the food chain operational, to maintain distribution infrastructures, and to perform cleaning and disinfecting protocols, among many other essential tasks.

On the other hand, the answer is other, even more unrecognized, guardian angels. These invisible “angels” labour alongside them but are somehow unworthy of that name because the work they do is viewed as less sacrificial, less bound by relations of care — occasional and precarious workers, custodial workers, delivery workers, piecemeal workers, food processing workers, and many others. It takes a lot of angels in a pandemic to care for the elderly, to keep the food chain operational, to maintain distribution infrastructures, and to perform cleaning and disinfecting protocols, among many other essential tasks.

While the figure of the guardian angel has a long history in Catholic thought (protecting the devout and lighting and guarding their path), in contemporary society guardian angels largely appear in anecdotal stories of miraculous protection: stories of people escaping burning buildings, avoiding enemy fire, thwarting ominous stalkers. Calling essential workers “guardian angels” erases the conditions under which some people are forced to work on the front lines, exposing themselves to critical COVID-19 viral loads, unsafe working conditions, and long hours, while others are able to safely quarantine at home.

If the “guardian angels” are miracle workers, it is only because they do so much with so little. Scholar Kalindi Vora calls this global labour relation the transmission of “vital energy” from areas where life is depleted to areas where it is enriched. With roots in colonial forms of extraction, this transnational form of profit-making and production relies on a project of racializing and gendering labour. The “guardian angels” are thus not divine providence; they are exploited labourers.

Guardian angels are also imagined in early Catholic worldviews to be “ever present, hovering on the edge of visibility,” as Susan R. Garrett writes. This image is a haunting echo of the conditions of (frequently illegalized) racialized and feminized care work in Canada and around the world — performed not only by housekeepers and child care workers but also those who pick fruit, deliver packages, answer the phone in call centres, assemble electronics. The model of global outsourcing is such that most of our most essential labour hovers on the edge of visibility, conveniently for those who wish to forget it.

Canada relies on a class of workers who are not granted the rights of citizenship or residency, and who are vulnerable to abuse, wage withholdings, workplace accidents, sickness and injury, and detention or deportation.

Calling frontline workers without the rights of citizenship “guardian angels” (and only some of them at that) exposes two important things. First, the subjects of divine protections are presumed to be exclusively Canadian citizens, frequently white (if press images from residential and long-term care centres are indicative of the people who are cared for. And second, exploitative and precarious labour, frequently performed by people of colour without status in Canada, is understood not as a structural problem of discrimination and inequality but as “miraculous protection.” This protection is offered “generously” by those without status in Canada, who “stepped up to serve.”

Christian imagery of guardian angels therefore obscures the racial politics of essential work in Canada. Stories of COVID-19 outbreaks in meat processing plants, on farms, in loading docks, and in hospitals and long-term care facilities exposes Canada’s reliance on a class of workers who are not granted the rights of citizenship or residency, and who are vulnerable to abuse, wage withholdings, workplace accidents, sickness and injury, and detention or deportation.

It is shocking that in the time of COVID-19, where the possibility of thinking big about the structural problems facing Quebec and Canadian society exists, we can only summon up the courage to think in very small ways about our immigration policies. New green energy plans are being devised, a universal basic income is being floated, and new forms of labour and care are imagined — meanwhile, our response to the proposition to regularize the status of a few “guardian angels” testifies only to our impoverished imagination, our implicit racism, or both.

Instead, the current crisis has exacerbated a new cruel meritocracy: rather than extend hospitality to all those who constitute our social world (including those without status), the pandemic has imposed a stricter divide between those who are deemed to merit regularization and those who aren’t; those who are seen as undeserving of poverty and those who must content themselves with it; those who receive recognition and gratitude and those who are taken for granted and remain invisible; those whose lives are worth preserving and those who may be sacrificed; those who deserve freedom and those who are imprisoned, detained or (potentially) deported.

In response to this cleavage, and to truly institute forms of inclusive care and social connection that will get us out of this pandemic, we must exercise an opposing force to unite struggles against social injustice, which are themselves interrelated. We cannot address the question of migrant justice without addressing anti-racist justice, since racialized labour is the backbone of the global economy and its most exploitative practices.

We cannot address migrant justice without addressing police violence, since that violence is directed not only at Black people, Indigenous people and people of colour, but also against those among them who are non-citizens, threatening them with deportation.

We cannot address migrant justice without addressing the prison system, since the detentions of people who have committed no crime but the crossing of borders is on the rise around the world.

We cannot address migrant justice without addressing global capitalism, which has made conditions of life untenable for so many in their homes and life-worlds.

We cannot address migrant justice without addressing the demands of Indigenous Peoples for decolonization, restitution and reparations, because the settler state exercises the same control over rights, resources and territory in both domains.

The exclusive regularization of the immigration status of “guardian angels” does too little to address these larger issues that divide us into those with the privilege of being cared for — of thriving despite the adversity of the pandemic — and those without that privilege. We need to aim higher. We can only overcome the pandemic if we move beyond individual acts of social distancing towards a collective social compact.

This means acknowledging our interdependence, but also our equal right to care and consideration. When the coronavirus outbreak reached Portugal in March, the country responded by temporarily giving migrants and asylum seekers full citizenship rights. They understood that the unequivocal guarantee of those rights for all reduced the risks for everyone. It followed the principle to “protect the entire society as a society,” as political scholar Wendy Brown remarked regarding the case of New Zealand.

Migrant people are not guardian angels; they are vulnerable workers and members of our society, whether they have citizenship or not. This is our opportunity to do more than give exceptional consideration to the few who have laboured and gained visibility through the past several months. It is a chance to truly imagine an expanded social compact with all the vital members in our expanded community by granting status to all.

Krista Lynes is Canada Research Chair in Feminist Media Studies and associate professor in Communication Studies at Concordia University. Anne-Marie Trépanier is a master’s student in Communication Studies at Concordia University. These reflections emerged out of a collective project, “Doing Feminism in the Pandemic,” at the Feminist Media Studio, a research/creation lab at Concordia University. The authors are grateful to all participants in this project, who enriched their thinking on the figure of the “guardian angels” immensely.

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