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A sociology of the pandemic: Caring for carers

By: Steve Matthewman and Kate Huppatz

In our recent collection, we tackled the Covid-19 pandemic, which presents the profoundest public health and economic crisis of our times. As sociologists, we were interested in the ways in which disasters expose existing social relations, bringing to light inequities that are normally invisible. One obvious area of interest is the dynamics of care. Care work is routinely unacknowledged and undervalued. And the bulk of this labour is undertaken by women. This means that the majority of the planet’s healthcare and social care workers are women. The WHO puts the figure at 70%. And this statistic only considers paid care. Most healthcare is actually unpaid and performed by women in the home. Indeed, according to the International Labour Organization women perform over 75% of all of the world’s unpaid work. Our colleague, Lyn Craig, contributed a study on domestic labour in Australia, finding that unpaid care work increased during lockdown and that while men also did more unpaid childcare, a gender gap remained. Women are therefore on the frontline of coronavirus.

Covid-19 also draws our attention to the classed dimensions and labour conditions of care. In Australia, nursing homes have been a key site for Covid-19 infection (particularly in one of the worst affected states: Victoria). Subsequent investigation showed that these aged care facilities were staffed by people who could not afford to stay away, even when sick, as they were low paid, and often temporary workers who could not access paid sick leave. Thus, when it came to susceptibility to Covid-19, being trapped in precarious work was therefore the “underlying condition”.

We agree with Karina Battyany, who writes: ‘We must … implement an emphasis on care, and not the market, as the central organizing axis of community life… The only total, effective response to national crises is provided by universal, public, and free institutions, in common and collective locations’. While this may seem unduly optimistic, Covid-19 has functioned as a social laboratory. All too often, we are told that meaningful change is impossible, that there is no alternative. Yet in short order, to respond to the pandemic, we agreed to physically distance to protect our fellow citizens. Collective wellbeing was prioritised over economic growth. Just as people were placed before profits, other “impossibilities” soon followed: free childcare was provided (in Australia), homelessness was ended (in New Zealand), hospitals were nationalised (in Spain), basic income was granted (in Canada), and migrants and asylum seekers have been given full citizenship (in Portugal).  These responses have gone some way in addressing the care deficit, if implemented long-term they could reduce entrenched inequalities, including the feminisation of unpaid care labour, post-pandemic.

Sociologists know that the jobs with the highest pay may be the least socially useful. Covid-19 has given us something of a status reversal, showing us who the truly essential workers are. Yet recognition only goes so far. The challenge ahead is to align rewards with recognition, so that people are paid what they truly deserve. This means that we must confront the unprecedented wealth inequalities that we face. Fortunately, we have the policy levers to do so. At the level of “pre-distribution”, which is to say before taxation is involved, we could move beyond the notion of a minimum wage to that of a living wage, we could institute a universal basic income, and we could limit corporate salaries (including maximum wages for CEOs). At the level of redistribution, we could enact progressive taxation regimes, close tax loopholes and also implement new taxes as appropriate, for example capital gains taxes in jurisdictions where they currently do not exist. We could also insist upon high levels of worker representation on company boards (some countries mandate as much as 50 per cent, but we could demand even more). We could also promote worker unionization, and embed unions into formal bargaining processes.

Given the magnitude of the things that we have managed to achieve in this pandemic, expanding health and welfare safety nets, providing state responses to unpaid care, and paying care workers what they are worth seem to be within our grasp.

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