Care in the Time of COVID

The long-discounted chains of dependency in caring for humans and environment

In the midst of the smoke, fire and tragedy-filled days of early 2020 it seemed for a while impossible to imagine that resuming ‘normal’ life would ever make any sense. Climate change was upon us, searing, terrifying, deadly. Then COVID-19 came to fulfil half-made promises of radical change. Sheltering in place, working from home, the ‘new normal’ at first seemed likely to realise a decoupling from frenzied lives that had too little time left for care. 

So many desires for change flowed through this time. Long periods of watching each other only through screens connected us in new ways, even as it allowed us to glimpse a human withdrawal from the world, leaving the environmental home we have plundered to recover for a while. We witnessed wildlife reclaim the emptied streets and cities, while mountains emerging on city horizons freed from smog appeared as implacable witnesses of our transience. As we have waited for ‘normal life’ to return and release us, many have hoped that this momentary withdrawal means that the economies and politics that devour our planetary home may be reset. 

In a set of short reflections by artists on what the pandemic means for their practice, Anuradha Vikram offers a list of common beliefs challenged by the virus, including that

  • [w]orkers need to convene for a third of their waking lives or operations will derail; 
  • smog is just part of living in cities; 
  • culture is about visiting and caring for objects; 
  • childcare is something that happens outside the workplace…

The sense that the pandemic opens new potentialities and allows new aspirations forms an identifiable arc of responses to its meaning. Among the many things that could be said about the metaphorical load the virus bears is its appearance as an agent of change. 

Indeed, as a disease of populations more than of individuals, like the 1918 influenza pandemic to which it is most often compared, COVID-19 readily appears as the companion and aftermath of a kind of civilisation-ending moment. At both a grand and an intimate scale it raises profound questions of mutual obligation, of vulnerability to others, and of intergenerational justice. Its spread is driven by behaviour, including defiance of the constraints that containment demands, but also by the invisible traces of breath in air, signalling an implacable and involuntary community. It is a disease of the communal intimacy of bodies in constant but unseen gaseous exchange, but also a disease of inequalities. Described as ‘indiscriminate’ in its targets, the virus has in fact raised public awareness of racial and gendered distributions and unequal burdens of death and disadvantage. The virus is embedded in a narrative of planetary scale in terms of its sociopolitical agency, yet its inevitable impact on the home provokes deep questions about the places, routines and order of everyday things.

‘Pandemic’ derives etymologically from pandemospan, everywhere, among the demos, the people. This ‘everywhere’ has been managed through lockdowns and borders, but it has also posed thorny questions about where the responsibilities for care fall. Care for the elderly became a divisive question when the price of preserving lives was calculated against the economic cost of a lockdown. The ugliness of this debate reflected long patterns of neglect, entrenched in scandalously underfunded aged care. However, the social solidarity that rejected such calculation was also on show. Care has displayed this double face throughout the crisis: as a residual site of deep connection, the common air of vulnerability we breathe is at odds with the priorities of economic systems that foster and feed off a faith in individualism that denies and devalues the needs and dependencies that care addresses. 

When the lockdowns began in March 2020 and paid work was abruptly moved into the home in response to the global COVID-19 pandemic, the leadership line was ‘we’re all in this together’. Yet the kind of productivity that counted in GDP was to be maintained where possible. Notably, those whose work in the home is not counted as work picked up considerable extra hours. As schools closed, for some life changed more than for others. In what was optimistically named ‘home schooling’ working parents had to supervise quickly thrown-together lessons, presented on Zoom by harried teachers. Many of the teachers were themselves doing double time managing their own children. For some, it meant squeezing a corner of space to work in a cleared-out wardrobe or on a shared kitchen table. Time also had to be found for shopping and the preparation of three times the usual amount of food for families stuck at home. And for some, it meant being trapped with partners who responded to stress with controlling or violent behaviour.

As working from home was mandated, distorting metrics for counting productive work while discounting care were shaping policy responses, just as they have long shaped exploitation of the equally undervalued environment. The tax and transfer arrangements which are an extensive underpinning of economic life and play a significant role in shaping women’s fates regard the home as a cost-less resource. Many of the other ways in which we think about ‘work-life balance’ or ‘flexible work’ have as their implicit background inequitable and inefficient ways of ‘not counting’ work, especially women’s work, both in the care economy and in the home. A very significant range of assumptions shaped the ease with which the decision to move (paid) work into the home was made, and they framed the invisibility of its imposition on those who stepped up to mitigate the crisis. The backgrounds of both requirement and adaptation have roots that run deep in the gendered organisation of care and responsibility. If home was ‘free’, it was also a standing reserve for appropriation in an emergency. The way a home often functions as a site of gendered relations of care and labour did not form a point of consideration in planning. Instead, by taking employee flexibility for granted, and presenting working from home as a privilege offered by generous employers, rapid adaptation was simply required as the price of keeping a job. 

In the COVID-19 crisis that enveloped the world, lockdown served valid ends. But aside from this instrumental question, what did its gestures assert about power: the power to use, to extract value? How did it deepen entitlements that are linked to systemic violence against women, notably as these flow through the individualism supported by economic systems that both exploit and devalue care work? Although lockdown measures have been opposed by some, there has been no large-scale opposition to state mandates requiring work to take place from home. Indeed, the risk of losing jobs altogether has loomed large, making those working from home seem lucky. Employers appeared flexible and generous in ‘allowing’ working from home, rather than being seen as demanding the use of the home and its care. Yet the arrangement nonetheless asserted the power to use, to take, and to validate the needs that drive the act of taking. What I have elsewhere described as an act of requisitioning the home gave a distinctive political form to the emergency. 

The most insidious and prevalent forms of violence are those that cannot be seen. Often their systemic form is masked by ideas about the responsibility of agents whose actions are thereby extracted from wider conditions and sequences. In her recent book on violence against women Jacqueline Rose draws attention to a press photograph of a group of white men in dark suits, looking on as their president signs an executive order banning US state funding for groups anywhere in the world offering abortion or advice to those seeking it. No more funding, that’s all. This is, for Rose, a paradigmatic instance of quiet complicity in misogyny. The ‘global gag rule’ with which Trump inaugurated his presidency did not have the same shock value, perhaps, as his more overtly sexist behaviour, yet it meant an increase in deaths by illegal abortion for thousands of women throughout the developing world.

The misogyny expressed in such an order is not only casual but tied to a sense of office and duty. For those who signed or approved the executive order, the consequences of their actions, far downstream, may constitute deeply traumatic lived realities, yet these they need not trouble themselves about. Any thought about consequence is blocked by imagining that what they do is ‘morally right’—protecting the rights of the innocent unborn. Those who sign will not be among those who care for the women who must give birth or seek unsafe abortions, nor will they be among those to care for the infants if and when they are born. Here the invisibility of care, the uncounted nature of its costs and risks and who bears them, is also a support for the invisibility of systemic violence. Violence is a form of entitlement, as Rose also remarks: entitlement to a protected place in the distribution of costs and risks, entitlement to use violence with casual impunity, entitlement to a schema of selective visibility and to the disappearance of inconvenient truths. To remain entitled depends on all of this, upon distribution, impunity and invisibility remaining as they are.    

Recognising misogyny as an aspect of individual behaviour can be in tension with recognising these wider structural aspects. The present focus on misogyny in Australia’s parliament has concerned acts ranging from sexual violence to the everyday disrespect that women encounter in the workplace. The prime minister, after failing for many weeks to grasp the seriousness of any of these issues, ordered a taskforce into being under the leadership of the Minister for Women, Marise Payne, who had, to that time, issued no media statement at all on the parliamentary scandals. The composition of the taskforce tells a tale whereby being a woman is supposed to be in itself a sufficient opposition to misogynistic culture. 

Among the key players in this taskforce is Superannuation Minister Jane Hume. Just days before the taskforce’s establishment, she had tried to push through a policy in which women who were fleeing domestic violence could access money from their own super funds to support themselves and their children. The redoubling of their victimisation by ‘allowing’ them to take out money intended for their already underfunded retirement (generally, women’s superannuation holdings are far smaller than men’s) met protest and was dropped. Yet Hume was invited to take on the task of promoting ‘Women’s Economic Security’. Social Services Minister Anne Ruston, who presided over the return to poverty of thousands after rescinding benefits made available during the most disruptive phases of the pandemic, became responsible for ‘Women’s Safety’. Since Ruston has denied there is a measurable poverty line at all, let alone one below which many Australians fall, there is considerable irony in this role too. For poverty condemns many women to insecure lives, and to remaining in unsafe homes. The Assistant Minister for Women, Amanda Stoker, meanwhile, is a prominent critic of abortion rights, is a sceptic about reported levels of rape on university campuses and has been dismissive of the very claim to existence of transgender people, treating this as an illegitimate ‘choice’ of gender. Stoker was immediately called out for her willingness to accuse women of playing the ‘gender card’ and her support for people such as Bettina Arndt speaking up for men’s rights against alleged feminist overreach. 

The reasons for the inception of the taskforce (which amount to a crisis response to recent government failings in managing public perceptions, as much as anything else) risk keeping the debate at a level of judgement on right or wrong, appropriate or inappropriate behaviour. Although the wider questions of gender inequality have certainly been flagged, too little regard is given to factors such as poverty, or the more profound ways that gendered and racial distributions of entitlement and privilege are maintained through a fundamental devaluing of the kind of care work that women still predominantly do. To this extent, it seems likely that questions of violence will only be superficially addressed as they affect the majority of women in Australia. 

Yet perhaps there is cause for hope. Care has become visible in a new way during the COVID-19 crisis. The availability and limits of care have become part of the stakes of the crisis. The question of who provides it and how under ordinary conditions of life has become an issue that also matters. The providers of the supports of ‘normal life’ are often the lowest paid, and they have become noticed only as their usually backgrounded roles undergo disruption. It is also evident that, as they were required to remain at home during periods of lockdown, men have participated in care in new ways. At the same time, however, huge setbacks to previous progress on gender equality have been remarked everywhere in the world where the pandemic has brought lockdowns, as women have given up jobs to take on new burdens of care in the home, or have lost jobs in disproportionate numbers in work such as hospitality. How will our ‘taskforce’ tie these many threads together?

It is all too easy to divide them. On the very same day on which Julia Gillard made her now world-famous speech condemning misogyny, the Social Security Legislation Amendment (Fair Incentives to Work) Act 2012 was passed by the parliament she led. The Act ensured that as of 1 January 2013 those recipients of the Parenting Payment who were partnered would cease to be eligible for the payment once their youngest child turned six years old, or eight, in the case of single parents. Most of these parents would instead be moved onto Newstart, the general job-seekers’ allowance. Labor’s 2012 amendment removed a ‘grandfathered’ protection from single parents who had received single-parent benefits from before 2006, and were previously entitled to them until their children turned sixteen. The amendment saved the government $700 million. Indeed, since first introduced by the Howard government in 2006, pushing single parents from the parenting payment onto Newstart has saved $5 billion. The costs have been borne elsewhere, in the deprivations endured in the home and in lives exposed to lack of care and opportunity. 

One third of single-parent families in Australia are now estimated to live in poverty, and one in six children. Underpinning the lack of widespread shock at these appalling statistics are stories about individual responsibility, a category that again serves to conceal and distribute violence while posing as the underpinning of an economic morality of merit. Stereotypes of single mothers depict them as lazy, manipulative and out to get what they can from welfare. Aboriginal mothers, who face a long history of both racial prejudice and government interference, are especially denigrated. Yet clearly the circumstances that have brought about the conditions of these women’s lives (which include state violence, economic policy, and domestic violence) circumscribe severely the domain of ‘choice’ that women are nonetheless supposed to have exercised in electing to raise children, and the ways they manage this task. 

The misogyny that is ingrained in suspicion regarding women unmoored from the sustaining provision of a ‘breadwinner’ merely intensifies an allocation of responsibility for reproductive life to women in general. It is astounding how wedded our society remains to assuming that responsibility for the care of children lies in the private sphere—that it belongs to women to offer their lives and bodies to such roles in ways that systemically disadvantage them in economies organised around the values of paid work. Or that where women are able to pay for the care of children, it will fall to other women, and disproportionately women of colour, to do this work at minimal rates of pay.  

The lessons this economic sexism reveals connect with those that can be drawn directly from the arrangements made to deal with the public emergency presented by the pandemic. The avowed aim has been to restore normality, including the normal distribution of costs and risks and the conditions under which they become visible. The kind of crisis management that was most prevalent in the particular shitstorm that was 2020 emphasises the calculation of impacts in financial, legal or human terms, using a rational calculus, albeit one that was much disputed, in which government is seen as weighing the costs and benefits associated with planning for and mitigating specific crisis events. Emergency management, as is typical, has been focused on the level of decision-making and allocation of limited resources for care, rather than on cultivating attitudes more appropriate to the protracted lived experiences of looking after one another during crisis, or of breathing a common air. That dichotomy was visible in the rapid withdrawal of social support schemes such as JobKeeper the moment they were seen as no longer strictly essential for the good of the economy, regardless of the people this then delivered into insecurity, homelessness and poverty. 

One way to expose systemic violence is to reveal who bears costs and risks and, in doing so, to disturb schemas of selective visibility as they flow from power. Alongside this gesture of criticism, though, other forms of responsibility demand both acknowledgment and cultivation as ‘normal’ comes into question. Carol Gilligan’s account of an ethic of care contrasts the kind of thinking that calculates costs and risks with the relational work that involves ‘seeing and responding to need, taking care of the world by sustaining the web of connection’. Gilligan saw a dichotomy between calculative moral thinking, or the kind of thinking modelled on moments of decision, and the work of care, a dichotomy she related to gender roles. We might also relate it to the different contours assumed by individual responsibility, as contrasted with the ongoing rhythm of breathing air that necessarily overflows individual boundaries, placing us in common need. 

In general terms, we have come to think about responsibility in highly individualised and linear ways, as if we are only responsible for the actions we individually and intentionally take. Yet caring thwarts such boundaries. It is often unchosen and is responsive to a sense of shared life. It is true that if care has to be given to maintain or restore the order of ‘normal’ then it has to be provided by somebody, somehow. But relations and demands of care also reveal connections that exceed and support such terms of possibility. While it ‘takes a village to raise a child’, for we children of economic rationalism there can be trauma in what Gilligan describes as the ‘rediscovery of connection, in the realization that self and other are interdependent and that life, however valuable in itself, can only be sustained by care in relationships’. This trauma today presses itself upon us. It haunts us in the experience of climate change as being already here, as well as in the experience of the pandemic. Government management of the COVID crisis has intersected with widely acknowledged crises in care, both in the rich sense that Gilligan gives to care as ‘relational thinking and work’ and in the ‘crisis of care’ in capitalist economic settings. Here care occupies the delicate—or unstable—place of balance between something that has to either be purchased, transacted as part of a labour market, or given absolutely unconditionally, without price attached. 

The most fundamental conditions of life only rarely become visible as such, and the results of their becoming so is often a moment of grave disquiet. But these are also rare times of opportunity. What economists call ‘externalities’ guide and reflect what is seen and unseen. Air pollution from industrial production and practices is estimated to kill 8.5 million people a year. These preventable deaths, however, are for the most part invisible as aggregate effects. If someone sufficiently far off and low down in a chain of dependency pays the price, an enterprise remains apparently costless. Now, however, climate change is disturbing that comfortable distribution of costs and risks, and the drivers of relative wealth and poverty fail to guarantee the security of anyone. The crisis of the Black Summer gave the lie to the logic of externalities, amplifying signs of a violence wrought on climate. The effects begin to track long-discounted chains of dependency. To amplify their claims on us is to weave the threads together. It is past time to begin remaking social policy centred on practices of care and to put attention to the living world on which we all depend at the forefront of consideration.

We have choked not only on foul air but on a visceral realisation that such networks of dependency include us in their fragile support of life. The very distribution of cost and risk has been an effect of the industrial practices that our governments endorse and foster as generators of wealth and the security it brings for a few. And all that we count as ‘normal’ presently depends on its quiet arrangement of life chances. We need this time of rethinking and engagement with care to be worked into our sense of the time of pandemic, to trust it as opening new potentialities, new aspirations. Pan-demos. Everywhere, people. Not yet quite back to normal, this ever-narrowing space to do things otherwise remains at least a fraction open. 

About the author

Fiona Jenkins

Fiona Jenkins is associate professor in the School of Philosophy, Australian National University, and convenor of the ANU Gender Institute. Her current research covers projects relating to COVID-19 lockdowns viewed through the lens of emergency politics and gender inequality. She is lead investigator on an ARC-funded project, ‘Gendered Excellence in Social Sciences’, examining the relation of gender and patterns of knowledge production in academic disciplines.

More articles by Fiona Jenkins

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