Report of WIDE+ webinar: “COVID19 and the care economy. What do we see, what do we call for?”, on neo-liberalism vs care relationships

Our first webinar in the series: “COVID19 and care: feminist reflections on a new normal” gave us lots of thoughts on the nature and role of care in our economies and also discussed strategies to combat a neo-liberal understanding of care. Silke Steinhilber ended our webinar with stressing that people in the West are now with COVID19 experiencing the precariousness of societies that people in the South have experienced for much longer: “Let’s use our COVID experience to look beyond our borders”.

Sara Cantillon supplemented this thought. The COVID pandemic has collectively revealed to us the universal truth that we are all vulnerable as people: “this calls for a new economic ordering of the economy that values care in all its dimensions, not as a commodity”.

Ulla Björnberg stressed that we need to end neo-liberal thinking that is deeply ingrained in our society. Feminists can contribute to developing a new appreciation of the central role of care through awareness raising and building knowledge. Elisabeth Klatzer added that we need mass mobilization beyond advocacy and lobby on this issue and share our personal stories. And in terms of demanding more investments in care, we should also demand these investments are not brough through a profit-seeking mechanism as this will always lead to pursuing profits above care.

Care work moves beyond commodified profit work

Sara Cantillon opened the webinar by outlining the central role of care on which households and in fact our economies are run. However it is persistently undervalued and treated as a private matter. The economic model of (the rational choice) man is biased by excluding our interdependencies through care. Care work cannot just be commodified as other forms of paid labour. Relations in the first sphere of people like family cannot really be delegated. For example, the emotional experience of having a visit by your mother or child in the hospital cannot be replaced by a stranger. Emotional labour cannot be quantified. Still our economic systems try to commodify care, for example through setting times for a certain care task in the paid sphere.

The impacts of COVID on care has been a paradox. As Silke Steinhilber summarized Cantillon’s remarks: the pandemic has made the invisible care work visible in our economy, as we realized our dependencies on this work. At the same time more visible care work became invisible as more care work was taken up in the homes of people. Cantillon also talked about the very noticeable role of intergenerational care, with elders breaking through the stereotype of ‘frail’ elders through their care work for children and others.

Does Cantillon expects that care has now come to the centre stage? She is rather pessimistic on whether governments are or will be investing more in care work. The ‘lightbulb’ realizing the importance of care work doesn’t seem to have arrived yet. However at individual level there have been changes and these might lead to more progressive norms in societies.

COVID19 measures that rely on individual responsibility of paid and unpaid care workers

Ulla Björnberg presented GADIP’s study that shows the structural problems in the Swedish paid care work system through looking at the impacts of COVID19. While Sweden had a more relaxed approach in terms of containing the spread (no formal lockdown), the problems that arose in its care response are emblematic for other systems permeated by neoliberal structuring.

Silke Steinhilber concludes from the presentation that what is very striking is that the Swedish government relied on individual responsibility of care workers to protect themselves and others. It did not take a more active role in providing information and equipment.

In Sweden there is also a significant excess mortality among migrants. Migrant faced three times more risk to die from COVID compared to other people. Many migrants in Sweden work as care workers, which often means a poor salary. They felt compelled to go to work during COVID19, out of solidarity with their clients and/or out of necessity as they needed the work. There was insufficient protective gear for them in the beginning of COVID and later onwards there was lack of information on how to use protective gear properly. Ulla Björnberg: “What was scandalous in Sweden was the situation among care homes. A part of the homes did not have in-house doctor. This meant that even for advice on the last stage of life some doctors were communicating over the phone”.

Political economic responses ignore women’s work: we need to unmute ourselves!

Elizabeth Klatzer showed convincingly how the massive EU COVID economic recovery plan is not gender mainstreamed. The EU recovery package, the financially largest EU investment package ever, does not invest in the care economy. It directs its investments to sectors traditionally dominated by men, for example infrastructure. While it is simply better economic policy to invest in care. As shown by the research of Himmelweit and others, investing in care jobs will create not only more jobs for women, but also for men (see slide below). The European semesters cycles have promoted huge reductions in investing in care and the EU COVID recovery plan has been tied to this EU mechanism. So far, feminist advocacy has brought some changes but the impact has been too limited.

Elisabeth Klatzer also reflected on the feminist coalition in Austria of which she is part towards promoting an alternative COVID response package that is feminist: “Feminists have in many countries set up coalitions to advocate for feminist recovery packages. This is not only aimed at direct advocacy; it is also about creating more awareness among women: Let’s unmute ourselves!

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