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Coronavirus: Duty (or Burden) of Care - part 1

June Ip
June 09, 2020
Categories: Advocacy Feminism 

By June Ip, guest blogger
Part 2 of this series.

This is just the beginning. While some of our lowest paid workers are either out of work or in harm’s way as essential workers, those in white collar professions can largely insulate themselves by working from home and ordering meal delivery. The novel coronavirus is starkly magnifying the vulnerabilities facing marginalized communities – and the fear is that whatever “new normal” emerges on the other side of this pandemic, we have yet to see the longer-term, and more deeply-seated inequities this pandemic will cause. 

If we take a step back and strip away the noise that surrounds the pandemic, what is clear is that at the heart of this (and any) health crisis is care – care for the sick, care for the children whose schools have closed, care to practice physical distancing and mask-wearing for the sake of others. And whether we like it or not, women are the ones most burdened with care and the work associated with it. 

According to a 2018 paper from the International Labour Organisation (ILO), globally, women and girls perform more than three quarters of unpaid care work, while paid care workers are two-thirds women. The early evidence from the pandemic suggests that although a large number of workers, both men and women, are now working from home and therefore the traditional inequities in housework should theoretically disappear, it seems not much has changed. 

A recent New York Times article indicates that 70% of American women are fully or mostly responsible for house and care work during the pandemic. Quite comically, that same New York Times article claims that nearly 50% of the men surveyed say that they are doing the heavy lifting, but only 3% of women agreed. There are a few reasons for the discrepancy, not the least of which is the undervaluing of another component of care work that women largely take on, termed “the cognitive load.” Eve Rodsky at Harper Bazaar describes it most vividly: “it’s one thing to simply grocery shop and quite another to research what your family needs, budget for supplies, and then hit the store.”

Now imagine that you’re a single mother with school-aged children at home during the pandemic – a living arrangement faced by 80% of all single parents in America. One such mother I personally know, estimates she manages to get in about three to four productive hours a day on paid work (she’s one of the ones who could engage in paid work from home), in between cooking three meals, cleaning up from a family sharing a small space 24/7, and home-schooling her child. 

The situation is no better in paid care work during the pandemic. Women make up two thirds of care workers and have been disproportionately affected by the shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE). To add insult to injury, most PPE is designed and manufactured to fit 6’ tall men, making standard PPE, even if it were available, too large for most women – hampering their mobility at best and needlessly exposing women to a dangerous pathogen at worst.

So if these inequities are coming into view during the pandemic, does a presumably more enlightened post-pandemic reality await women? 

While no one has a crystal ball, there will certainly be a “new normal.” It is yet to be determined if it is an improvement from the old one.

June Ip (she/her) is a marketing executive and educator with a background in political economy and social justice. Born to immigrant Chinese parents in Toronto, June's lived experiences have inspired her to advocate for and amplify the voices of racialized women in the city. She resides in the King West area of the city with her husband and dog, and can often be found eating sushi and/or noodles.

Image by Andrea Piacquadio