Uncaring economies – the harm governments do in response to COVID-19

17th March 2021

Author: Sue Cohen, University of Bristol, UK

The hidden value of women’s work laid bare

The hidden value of women’s work, disregarded by most mainstream economists, business leaders, and politicians, has been laid bare by the pandemic - locally, nationally, globally. Women’s work in the caring economy is brought into public view: in the home, in healthcare, childcare, social care, education, women are at the heart of the social infrastructure. In a pandemic crisis, reliance on the care economy becomes evermore critical, placing further demands on women’s multi-tasking expertise, exacerbating the gender inequalities endemic in our societies. Many mothers are at breaking point balancing paid employment with the emotional, physical and educational responsibilities for looking after children - the most rewarding and the hardest work anyone will ever undertake.

Uncaring economies continue to thrive

Those optimists amongst us might have anticipated that women’s visibility in the caring economy would initiate a new era when developing strategies for economic recovery. Yet age-old patriarchal power structures continue to thrive, cleaving the political from the personal, distancing the world of economics from the vicissitudes that many women face in their daily lives. (Cohen, S. Page, M. 2021. Feminist Activists on Brexit: From the Political to the Personal. Emerald.) 

The UK government’s response to the Covid crisis is a prime example, with the March 2021 budget committed to spending many billions on business, tax breaks and physical infrastructure whilst diminishing investment in public services, childcare, education, health and social care. Yet only a few months ago health and social care workers, the majority of whom are women and from BAME communities, were viewed as heroines and heroes: celebrated by weekly handclaps in streets across the nation; joined by the Prime Minister Boris Johnson outside 10 Downing Street who voiced his own personal debt to the nurses who saved him from Covid 19. Such gratitude has been short-lived. Nurses are to be rewarded with a 1% pay rise, an effective pay cut after inflation; social care workers in some care homes will get 1p an hour above the living wage.

Caring economies = less harm, fewer deaths

Women have no voice and by definition no status in the UK’s male dominated economic recovery strategies. Countries in which values are, more collectivist than individualist, more egalitarian, that consult on policy-making with a wide spectrum of people including women in the process, have not only done better in reducing deaths during the pandemic but are also more likely to elect women leaders. (Gender in the Time of Covid 19)

The UN report ‘The impact of Covid-19 on women’ warns against leaving women out of policy making.  'Evidence across sectors including economic planning and emergency response demonstrates unquestioningly that policies that do not consult women or include them in decision-making are simply less effective and can even do harm'. This is evidenced in the UK with one of the highest death rates in the world from Covid 19.

'Creating a Caring Economy: A Call to Action' led by the Commission on a Gender-Equal Economy and the Women’s Budget Group puts forward proposals that would have surely reduced that death rate. 'A caring economy is an economy which prioritises care of one another and the environment in which we live. It is a dynamic and innovative economy in which humans, and our shared planet, thrive.' (Creating a Caring Economy). The economy itself is also more likely to thrive. The Women’s Budget Group finds that 2.7% more jobs would be created investing in the care economy in the UK than investing the same amount in the construction industry.

Women fill the void – locally, nationally, globally

The Economy Task Force of the Women’s Commission in Bristol argues that investment in the social infrastructure and the caring economy would help meet six of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals which the city aspires to including gender equality, good health and well-being, reduced inequalities, decent work and economic growth.

When the state fails on care, women fill the void. When economies are uncaring, feminist movements rise up to fill the policy vacuum, connecting the local, with the national, with the global.

(Bristol Women’s Commission. Delivering an Inclusive Economy Post Covid-19)

Book: Feminist Activists on Brexit: From the Political to the Personal 

Authors: Sue Cohen as above and Margaret Page, University of West of England, UK