The forced self-isolation and social distancing over the last couple of months have brought to light both our worst fears and glimmers of hope about care and connection. We have heard about people being scared of dying alone and about people’s anguish over their inability to attend to their families and friends who are sick or dying. But we also have learned of the joy of families and friends who window-visit each other at home, at hospitals and at care facilities, of people ringing bells and making noises to thank and honour frontline care workers, and of people engaging in various forms of virtual activities ranging from online exercises and recipe exchanges, to virtual get-togethers like Zoom drinks and dinner parties. These are all expressions of our desire and need for each other and to connect – and the fear of separation, isolation and loneliness. They convey the importance of care and connection. The COVID crisis has revealed to us how much we need to connect and to care for each other to achieve a healthy, balanced, and meaningful life, and how our society is built on this interdependency.
My research focuses on care, care work and the care economy. By care work and the care economy, I mean the type of work and the sector of economy that relates to the provision of care and services for all people, young and old, all of which contributes to the nurturing and reproduction of the present and future population. Broadly it includes childcare, elder care, disability care, education, healthcare, and personal, social and domestic services that are provided in both paid and unpaid forms within formal and informal sectors.
My research shows that care is one of the most basic human needs, but its importance is most easily ignored and rejected. And because of this, the work of care remains largely invisible, devalued, and often left to the disadvantaged groups of people – women, people of colour and immigrants. Maybe it is because much of care is done out of love and concern, within households and in unpaid form, that we think we should get it for free. Or maybe we devalue care because we prefer to see ourselves as strong and independent, and imagine that people who need care are weak and dependent. Or could it be that because care and care work involve unglamorous and unceremonious acts of dealing with less than fully functional people and managing their bodily fluids that we think it should be at the bottom of the labour market food chain. From the business perspective, it would certainly be easier to separate the physical side of care work from the emotional side and dismiss it altogether. After all, it is much easier to measure productivity when it involves counting physical actions – like the numbers of mouths fed and bums wiped per hour – than to measure emotional connections and levels of trust achieved through care. We are also often uncertain and confused about the “knowledge” and skills that are required for good care as these knowledge and skills are not always systematic or recognized by the academy. All these impulses are somewhat understandable, but they are wrong and misguided. As our responses to the forced isolation and social distancing have illustrated, without care we all suffer. Care enables us to connect with each other, to understand our strengths and vulnerabilities, and to remind us that we are not alone in this world but are a part of a society. In short, care and connection help us be in touch with our humanity.
The pandemic has revealed the importance of care, and how little we have valued it. It is not simply that the pandemic has made hundreds of thousands of people sick and in desperate need of care. More importantly, it has made clear our vulnerabilities, our need for each other, and our interdependencies. We must use this new insight to rethink about care and connection. To do this, we must first acknowledge that we all need care and connection. Second, we must value care work and people who are engaged in the work of care. Third, if we value care and if we all need care, we must make sure that care and care work be distributed more equally and fairly amongst people, across genders and across social and economic classes. Finally, as a society we must seriously revalue the work of care, and invest more in care and care work.
Professor Ito Peng is a Canada Research Chair in Global Social Policy at the University of Toronto. She is a world authority in global social policy, specializing in gender, migration and care policies. She has written extensively on social policies and political economy of care in East Asia. Her teaching and research focus on comparative social policy, and family, gender, employment and migration policies. She has just completed an international partnership research project entitled Gender, Migration, and the Work of Care funded by Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (http://cgsp.ca/). She is currently engaged in two research projects: The Care Economy: Gender-sensitive Macroeconomic Models for Policy Analysis and Care Economies in Context: Towards Sustainable Social and Economic Development. She is a distinguished fellow of Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada, and a Research Associate at United Nations Research Institute for Social Development, UN Women and ILO. Her recent book, co-edited with Sonya Michel (2017), is called Gender, Migration and the Work of Care: A Multi-Scalar Approach to the Pacific Rim.