The crisis for care givers and care receivers

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The crisis for care givers and care receivers

Covid-19 makes the work of the world’s care givers almost impossible. Amy Hall writes about how we do not really value the work they do.


Albertina is 15 and the oldest of three sisters. When her mother died, she looked after her younger brothers and sisters. Now she wants to be a nurse. CHRIS DE BODE/PANOS

Care is the most important thing in our life. It feeds us, keeps us healthy, and makes it possible for society to work. It’s skilled, emotional, very tiring, satisfying work. It supports our lives, households, communities, and economies. It’s ‘women’s work’, work for poor people, work for migrants. Without it we have nothing.

But across the world we do not value it enough and we never about it. What it gives to our economies is invisible. Growth and profit seem to be the most important thing, care for people and the planet is not.

Care givers have the most difficult job during Covid-19 and the hard work continues. Researcher Christine Berry wrote about the British government’s idea of childcare, ‘Privately, governments and employers both know that unpaid childcare is the most important thing and very hard work, and that the need for it now is more than before. Publicly, they must pretend this work does not exist, because they do not want to support it.’

People often think care work is a private matter. It is ‘unproductive’ work, and certain groups of people do it for love, out of kindness, or duty. It’s not the business of the economy. We might see care work as a ‘gift’, and it can be full of joy, but it has limits. We do not worry about the people who do the work – paid or unpaid. But care givers support our economic success, our states, the private sector, and households. And we have not paid the bill for all of this work for many years. Women and girls do 12.5 billion hours of unpaid care work each day – the same as1.5 billion people working eight hours a day, without pay. We think that women’s unpaid care work adds about $10.8 trillion to the economy. People who are already the richest benefit the most from this.

Public spending on care is a cost and not an investment. Paid care workers are paid a lot less than those in other jobs with similar skills and qualifications. There are many places where care givers cannot afford the care that they give to others.

But people think this is not ‘real’ work. In Care Manifesto, the Care Collective writes, ‘Many pretend that the care workers do the jobs that we find terrible because “that is all they are good for”. This is another reason why we see caring as work for women or servants.’ The state has given the job of Covid-19 to households and communities. The way to stop Covid-19 is to stay at home and so we deal with it. But the work of caring for each other’s health was never only in the private household and family. For example, lesbian, gay and feminist collectives around the world cared for each other during the worst time HIV and AIDS. Covid-19 also shows that we depend on each other.


Nurses protest in Turin, Italy, about safety at work during Covid-19. PACIFIC PRESS/ALAMY

The world’s women carers

Behind every ‘great man’ (and plenty of ‘great’ people of all genders) there are mostly poorer women. Their work supports the economies that make the rich richer and more powerful. Serious poverty rates are higher for women than men across the world, as much as 22 per cent when women are at the age that they can have children.

Women spend a lot more time doing unpaid care work. Susan Himmelweit of the Women’s Budget Group writes, ‘Caring for others is something which organises women’s lives… women end up in worse paid jobs with worse pensions, because they organise their lives around caring in a way that men do not and that we do not expect them to do.’

Of course, poorer women have always done paid work and more and more women have now joined them. They also do most of the household care. Even for people who believe in equality, it can be very difficult to be free of gender roles.

Across the world, women and girls live in poverty and cannot get others to do their household work or use technology to make life easier. They spend a lot more time on unpaid care work than women from richer families. Many are also helping others as carers, cleaners, nannies or domestic workers, especially in countries where there is a high level of inequality.

Women do 80 per cent of this work and it is sometimes very unsafe. Labour laws cover only 10 per cent of domestic jobs; only half have equal minimum-wage protection and most work in places where there are no legal limits on work hours. Domestic workers are vulnerable to abuse, sometimes trafficked, or with not very safe immigration status.

With Covid-19 many went into poverty when they lost their jobs. Those who kept their jobs faced risk of infection, especially when there was no protective equipment and there were no safety measures. In March 2020, 63-year-old housekeeper Cleonice Gonçalves was the first person to die from the virus in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Her employer had recently returned from a holiday in Italy.

The crisis of care

Busy care workloads make it difficult to participate in education or social, economic, and political life, or even to have a rest. The work can start young. Girls from the poorest households spend an average of seven hours a week more on care work than girls in less poor households and so they are spending less time in school – five hours fewer each week than those from richer households.

As there are cuts in public services and social protection systems around the world, it is more and more difficult for families and communities to do what they need to give care. The situation is now a crisis, at breaking point.

Covid-19 means bigger care workloads for women and men across the world. A report published by Oxfam in June found that women living in poverty, single mothers, essential workers, and ethnic minorities were suffering badly. People of all genders in the US, Britain, Canada, the Philippines, and Kenya were suffering physically and emotionally because of Covid-19. Women are particularly feeling the stress: almost half said they were feeling more anxious, depressed, overworked, isolated, or physically ill because of increased unpaid care and domestic work.

The crisis of care did not happen suddenly; austerity, classism, privatization, and the extraction of wealth from the Global South all play a part. There’s also a bigger need for care, because of climate change and changing demographics. In high-income countries around 20 per cent of the population is aged 60 or above, predicted to rise to 30 per cent by 2040. About 2.3 billion people will need care by 2030. Some people are using technology for care. In Rwanda, they are using human-sized robots in clinics to test people for Covid-19 and to deliver medicine and other supplies. Some of Britain’s care homes have plans to use robots that make gestures like humans, have conversations, and offer practical help. They found that the robots helped reduce loneliness. The Guardian newspaper reported that the plan was to help at times when care workers were too busy to be with residents.

Jerome De Henau is Senior Lecturer in Economics at the Open University. He says, ‘There is a care crisis in most countries – even in Scandinavian countries that we know are much more advanced.’ Privatization has reduced affordable care but made inequality worse, especially as women do two-thirds of health-sector jobs around the world. Only half of countries have enough health workers to give good quality care services. The International Labour Organization says this and the working conditions of care workers will get worse. To stop this we need more investment in paid care services of six per cent of global GDP.

Women’s Budget Group in September 2020 reported that many businesses are making money from care homes. They can get rent, interest payments, fees, dividends, and capital gains, but they seem to make only small profits. In the UK, around £1.5 billion ($1.9 billion) leaks out of this industry each year in this way. It makes money for the world’s richest through servicing vulnerable people’s basic needs, paid for by their taxes and lifetime savings.


Robot caregivers are more and more popular. BSIP SA/ALAMY

Let us all be mothers

The way our economies fix the relationship between independent care givers and dependent care receivers is not like real life. It also does not recognize how much many people, especially men, get from the work, mostly done by women, to keep their standard of living. We all deserve more.

Lynne Segal is Anniversary Professor of Psychology and Gender Studies at Birkbeck College and co-author of the Care Manifesto. She says, ‘People don’t like to say that they have needs. In fact, the people who have their needs met and who are most dependent on others are the very rich. Because they receive care in every way all of their lives. And the rich do not value the care givers because they don’t want to say they are dependent on them.’

Nancy Fraser is Professor of Philosophy and Politics at the New School for Social Research. She says a more caring society sees every adult as a person with care responsibilities as much as that is physically possible for them. It sees the value of caring for people and the planet, and the wellbeing and safety of those they care for and it is not important that they are productive economically.

Nancy Fraser say that the two things that capitalism needs are more and more workers and the use of the world’s natural resources. But they cannot continue, they have a limit.

De Henau says better training, pay, and conditions for paid caregivers is essential and to make sure there is care for different genders and age groups. In a caring economy people could spend less time doing paid work and more time caring for each other. We could see the success of an economy in the quality of life and the way that we look after people, and not by income or economic growth.

Good, affordable housing, public transport, and education are also necessary for care.

Many people cannot really choose how to meet their own care needs, or those of people close to them. An economy that has care at its centre would need to start with the most marginalized and oppressed and not prefer the ‘normal’ heterosexual, nuclear family more than other households. More state services alone are not going to be enough. We need to look at the real causes of inequality.

The care challenge is one for all of us. So, where do we start? Activist Jasmeen Patheja writes:

‘Let all persons be mothers It doesn’t matter which gender, sexual or life choices Let all be good at caring Let us all be mothers to the earth, trees, to strangers, to ourselves, to our friends. Let us all be mothers to those like us and different from us. Known and unknown.’

So, where do we start? The answer is very close to home.


(This article is in easier English so it is possible that we changed the words, the text structure, and the quotes.)