COVID-19 pandemic: A Crisis of Care
We are in a global crisis: a new historical moment. The days pass, the virus expands its reach, fatalities rise and the world goes into unprecedented lockdown. Yet the current crisis is not only the result of a new pathogen circulating around the world. It is also a crisis of care, the result of decades of neoliberal policies prioritizing profit over people. Years of austerity measures, deregulation and privatisation, alongside the devaluing of care work has meant that neoliberal nation states—particularly countries like the US, the UK and Brazil —are unable to cope with the spread of coronavirus. Governments, which have for too long based their policies on the needs of the few and ‘economic growth’, are scrambling to find solutions.
Yet this global calamity is also a moment of profound rupture where many of the old rules no longer apply—and where governments can change our reality in a blink of an eye. As with all moments of rupture where norms crumble, the current one also provides us with a critical opportunity: an opportunity to imagine and create a different world—not just in the immediate but also in the long term. And if the pandemic has taught us anything so far, it is that we are in urgent need of a politics that puts care front and centre of life.
In the midst of this global crisis we have all been reminded of how vital robust care services are. Care is not only the ‘hands-on’ care people do when directly looking after the physical and emotional needs of others. ‘Care’ is also an enduring social capacity and practice involving the nurturing of all that is necessary for the welfare and flourishing of human and non-human life.
What, then, would happen if we were indeed to begin to place care at the very centre of life, not just for short term crisis, but the longer term?
To imagine a world organised around care, we must first begin by recognising the myriad ways in which our survival is always contingent on others. A caring politics must first and foremost acknowledge our interdependence alongside the ambivalence and anxiety these connections routinely generate. Recognising our needs both to give and receive care not only provides us with a sense of our common humanity, but also enables us to confront our shared fears of human frailty rather than project them onto others. Acknowledging the complexity of shared human dependencies enhances our ability to reimagine and participate more fully in democratic processes on all levels of society, because working with and through contradictory emotions are key to building democratic communities everywhere. Although we can never eliminate care’s difficulties, we can certainly mitigate them through building more caring kinships, communities, economies, states and worlds.
The traditional nuclear family with the mother at its centre still provides the dominant prototype for care and kinship. This is true even as same-sex couples have been increasingly incorporated into the traditional nuclear family model. Our circles of care have not broadened out in recent decades but actually remain painfully narrow.
Yet it is only by proliferating our circles of care—in the first instance by expanding our notion of kinship—that we can achieve the psychic infrastructures necessary for building a caring society that has universal care as its foundation. Diverse forms of care between all human and non-human creatures need to be recognised and valued. This is what we call ‘an ethics of promiscuous care’.
Promiscuous care means caring more and in ways that remain experimental and extensive by current standards. It means multiplying who we care for and how. Building on historical formations of ‘alternative’ care giving practices, we need to create the capacity for a more capacious notion of care. This is challenging because neoliberal capitalism’s underfunding and undermining of care have often led to paranoid and chauvinist caring imaginaries – looking after only ‘our own’. With adequate resources, time and labour people can feel secure enough to care for, about and with strangers as if they were kin. Such capacities are flourishing at the moment via the Covid-19 Mutual Aid groups, sprouting up in local areas during the pandemic, just as they did with AIDs support networks in the 1980s.[i]
Promiscuous care recognises that we all have the capacity to care—not just mothers, and not just women—and that all our lives are improved when we care and are cared for, and when we care together. To encourage promiscuous care means building institutions that are both capacious and agile enough to recognise and resource wider forms of care at the level of kinship. It means ending financial discrimination against single mothers,[ii] teaching boys emotional literacy and housework, and expanding care across communities.
Questions of care are not just bound up with the intimacy of very close relationships. They are also shaped in the localities we inhabit and move through: in local communities, neighbourhoods, libraries, schools and parks, in our social networks, and our group belongings. But the deliberate rolling back of public welfare provision, replaced by global corporate commodity chains, have generated profoundly unhealthy community contexts for care. We see this in the UK in the decimation of the social care system and local hospitals cutting 17,000 beds over the past decade alone.
Communities that care stop the hoarding of resources by the few. Instead, caring communities need to prioritise the commons. Communities based on care ensure the creation of collective public spaces as well as objects: they encourage a sharing infrastructure. This means reversing neoliberalism’s compulsion to privatize everything.
Corporate control over increasingly atomised, impoverished and divided communities produces organised loneliness. Instead, the local spaces we traverse need to be built upon the desire for mutual thriving. This means cheap or free public transport and public lending facilities—local libraries of tools and equipment in addition to books. It means ending the costly and damaging outsourcing of care and other services by bringing them back into the public sector, or ‘insourcing’. In many countries this is process is happening on a temporary basis right now. These caring infrastructures need to become the new normal, supported by the state—not simply a product of crisis to be abandoned afterwards.
Instead of rewarding large corporations at a time of crisis, we need to deepen democratic participation and create co-operative communities: communities that enable us to connect, to support each other in our complex needs and mutual dependency. This means using progressive forms of municipalism to expand public space, support co-operatives and shared resources; and it means being supported by caring states.
A state can be caring if notions of belonging are based on recognition of mutual interdependencies rather than on ethno-cultural identity and racialised borders. A caring state is one in which the provision for all of our basic needs and a sharing infrastructure are ensured while, at the same time, participatory democracy, rather than authoritarianism, is deepened at every level, and the health of the environment is prioritised. This, of course, means turning the current priorities of the state on their head as well as renewing models of welfare and social provision, which even the most neoliberalised states are revamping to deal with the current pandemic. The UK, for instance, has now introduced sweeping, yet temporary, forms of welfare provision to “save the liberal free market”[iii].
The caring state, however, refuses the post-war Welfare state’s rigid hierarchies and sexual and ethnic division of labour, as well as all racialised policies. Caring states need to rebuild and safeguard affordable housing, along with high-quality public schooling, university education, vocational training and health care. Public provision in the caring state does not revolve around cultivating dependences but what disability activists call ‘strategic autonomy and independence’, premised upon everyone receiving what they need both to thrive, with some sense of agency in the world. In other words, the state, while necessary to ensure the smooth provision of services and resources, must also be responsible for facilitating greater democratic engagement among communities.
By prioritising a care-based infrastructure based upon recognition of our interdependencies and vulnerabilities, while ensuring all the necessary conditions for the mutual thriving of all, a caring state undermines the conditions that produce economic and environmental refugees and migrants. While no state can ever completely eliminate human aggression, relations of domination, or natural and human-made disasters, only a caring state provides the necessary conditions for the vast majority to flourish.
We need caring exchange arrangements that focus on cooperative networks of mutual support and which redistribute social and material wealth according to everyone’s needs – what we call a “universal care” model – at the local, national and, ultimately, international levels; and in which essential goods are collectivised. Markets should be regulated, democratically governed, and as egalitarian, participatory, environmentally sustainable, and caring, as possible. Wherever possible they also need to be locally embedded, since local markets are better suited for cultivating relationships among producers, traders and consumers, promoting green processes and stimulating community-making.
More democratic and egalitarian modes of ownership and governance are crucial, then, as is the collectivisation and nationalisation of key industries as well as the protection of our vital care infrastructures from the forces of marketisation and financialization. Caring markets can only be imagined as part of economies that prioritise people and other living creatures over profit. In the current pandemic, this need to put people first has become crystal clear, and even reluctant governments have now been forced to call upon manufacturers and those with relevant expertise to help make ventilators as part of a national effort.
Care for the World
A caring world can only be built from the understanding that we are all dependent upon the systems and networks, animate and inanimate, that sustain life across the planet. Creating such a world entails broadening out from rebuilding and democratising social infrastructures and shared spaces at local, community and national levels into expanding alliances with progressive movements and institutions everywhere.
This means first and foremost rolling out a Green New Deal on a transnational level, while working toward the creation and democratisation of transnational institutions and networks whose goals are centred upon ensuring that the world’s population and the world itself are cared for.
Despite Trump’s pronouncements, the pandemic highlights the permeability of all borders. While caring states would provide all their inhabitants with a sense of safety, their borders need to be co-ordinated to ensure that, for instance, the current inevitability of migration does not drain certain parts of the world of needed population whilst overcrowding others. This will only be possible if care informs all other dimensions of our lives, diminishing the conditions that propels people to flee their homes out of economic necessity, war or climate emergency.
Caring states with sustainable economies and porous borders are the best possible route to global care and to transnational conviviality and cosmopolitanism, which sees through the hollow certainties of nationalism and cultivates a transnational orientation of care towards the stranger. Our caring imaginaries must move beyond the nation state and to the furthest reaches of the ‘strangest’ parts of the planet.
This brings us full circle. In the end, it is only by valorising rather than disavowing our global interdependencies that we can create any kind of caring world. Powerful corporations have often been the first to profit from the disasters their careless ways have helped to produce and exacerbate. But historically the opposite has also been true. Ruptures have paved the way for radical progressive change, as happened in the wake of WWII with the growth of welfare in many Western states and with successful independence struggles in former European colonies.
The challenge today is to build upon both those earlier moments of radical change and the current optic of what might, in fact, be possible in order to wrest back control from the power-grabbing 1% and their tyranny of social carelessness. For once, care for the vulnerable is being taken seriously, but this will disappear overnight—till the next crisis—unless we start to build more enduring and participatory infrastructures of and for care at every scale of life.
Ideas from The Care Manifesto, by the Care Collective, forthcoming with Verso.
[i] See also Pirate Care syllabus: https://syllabus.pirate.care/topic/coronanotes/?fbclid=IwAR2lNAsfGpdwg9t_60_Myn1ZFJ_OWZQl40p6gGVM_liv1yDvPG0XEtKrH9M