Community Infrastructure and the Care Crises: An Evaluation of China’s COVID-19 Experience

This blog post was originally published on the India-China Institute/The New School’s Pandemic Discourses blog.

COVID-19 has exacerbated the gendered impact of care work globally, but lessons can be learned from countries like China that have relied on community organizations for solutions.

The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed a severe care crisis throughout the world. The measures to contain the infection – lockdown, social distancing, quarantine – severely disrupted activities crucial to the basic functioning of society from cooking to cleaning, childcare, elder care and more. The experience of China shows the critical role of the community in providing essential services.

Like in many other countries, women in China assume disproportionately more care responsibilities than men. With the care crisis intensified by the pandemic, women from different socioeconomic backgrounds were all significantly affected. Urban women mostly saw themselves shouldering more household chores when hiring domestic workers or seeking extra help from family members became impossible or difficult during the lockdown. As most female migrant workers are employed in the precarious informal sector, they had to endure job losses and economic hardship, in addition to extra childcare and household chores. Female healthcare professionals risked their health working on the frontline while having to bear the added mental stress of possibly carrying the virus and spreading it to family members.

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“Are we all in this together?”: Reflecting on a year of COVID-19 marketing messages

In Spring 2020 the first signs of consumer and marketing messages related to the COVID-19 (Coronavirus) pandemic emerged. Like the virus itself, such marketing spread rapidly. The words “we’re all in this together”, and representations of such a sentiment, appeared in adverts and campaigns that were intended to invoke a sense of connectedness, community, and mutual care. Brands wanted people to relate to them and to seek comfort in the form of retail purchases during this time of crisis. Hence, taglines that alluded to togetherness cropped up amid the wave of content that companies created in response to COVID-19, including the marketing of supermarket giants Asda, Lidl, Marks & Spencer (M&S), and Tesco. When noticing this I found myself thinking about the relationship between COVID-19, capitalism, and consumer culture.

Although during the COVID-19 crisis brands have worked hard to cloak their capitalist activities in claims of connectedness, community, and care, to many people it is obvious that the main purpose of such promotional work is to keep the soul-grinding cogs of commerce turning. Despite their efforts to sometimes suggest otherwise, brands are not community organisers. They are not at the core of mutual aid and community care. If anything, brands are often a component of the very structural problems that community organisers strive towards dismantling as part of liberationist work. The imagined “we” that brands brazenly construct via adverts that are meant to tug on the heart strings of individuals during the pandemic is a “we” with money to spend. Such a “we” consists of consumption, not care, and profit, not people.

Are the often overworked and underpaid employees of such brands part of the imagined universal experience that they refer to in adverts about togetherness and weathering this storm with each other? Will such brands make meaningful shifts to substantially improve the precarious work and labour conditions of their employees or will they simply stick to surface-level representations of human connection and care rather than enacting change? There is nothing new about commercial organizations with track records of mistreating and exploiting staff arrogantly making sentimental and marketed claims about the experiences of “you”, “me”, “us”, and “we”. However, this does not detract from the reality that companies being so quick to create such crass content during this ongoing crisis was jarring. Furthermore, the way that some brands have implied that everyone has been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic in the same way is outright inaccurate.

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The Home, The World: Anti-Racist Feminist Politics and Communities of Care in a Pandemic

Without community there is no liberation, no future, only the armistice most vulnerable and temporary between me and my oppression.” Audre Lorde to Tony Morrison

The Home

Toni Morrison is one of the writers who wrote the most about ‘the home and racial justice’. In her emblematic novel Beloved, set in the post-Civil War South, she tells the story of a young girl murdered by her formerly-enslaved mother, Sethe. Sethe is importantly surrounded by the unheimlich (Freud), the stranger, where the foundations of our ethical judgment on slavery are found. In the United States, in the period 1882 to 1895, approximately one-third to half of the average black mortality rate corresponded to children under the age of five (Bhabha, 2002). We face the dilemma of judging these acts.

Sethe, in an act of love, kills her daughter Beloved to avoid her master’s appropriation of her daughter. Sethe was a pariah in the post-slavery society of the United States. She knew from when she was a slave what it meant for a woman to have her children taken when her breasts were full of milk; that she would have been beaten to exhaustion for others to take her milk. She was raped by her master, as was the case for many of the slaves of Sweet Home; that name itself being a mockery of a plantation that was held under a system of slave laws that collaborated on that tragic fate. If a female slave escapes, there is a double loss; the capacity for reproduction and for manual labor. The slave society must permanently produce new slaves for reproduction (Bidaseca, 2010).

Sethe insistently repeats:”It wasn’t a story to share. They forgot it like a nightmare (…) What should be forgotten before it is shared; what should be hidden and silenced as to not interrupt our present?”. I wondered in my book Perturbando el texto colonial. Los estudios poscoloniales en América Latina (2010): “This is not an easy story to transmit” but it needs to, as says Bhabha (2002), so that it may be engraved in our subconscious.

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Hidden Abodes in Plain Sight: What the COVID-19 Pandemic has revealed and why we need to put Social Reproduction at the centre of a more just post-Covid world

By Sara Stevano, Alessandra Mezzadri, Lorena Lombardozzi and Hannah Bargawi

After over a year of suffering, death and profound transformations of everyday life, it is time to take stock of the COVID-19 crisis so far and craft visions for a future centred on the value of social reproduction. In our article ‘Hidden Abodes in Plain Sight’ recently published in the special issue on Gendered Perspectives on COVID-19 in Feminist Economics, a social reproduction lens is used to analyse the COVID-19 crisis.

What is social reproduction? Social reproduction is ‘the fleshy, messy, and indeterminate stuff of everyday life’ as well as ‘a set of structured practices’, as vividly put by Cindi Katz, that are needed for the reproduction of both life and capitalist relations. In other words, it encompasses all the work, unpaid and paid, and the socio-cultural practices, institutions and sectors that are essential for the regeneration of our lives and society. As such, it speaks about the organisation of work both within and outside households. This is a key vantage point, we argue, to explore the impact of the COVID-19 crisis.

In fact, this crisis is fundamentally different from previous ones exactly because it shakes the foundational elements of our economies and societies: the organization of work, in its multiple forms. To fully analyse this process, we need to consider the interplay between reproductive and productive work, explore the effects of the crisis in the world of work, and map the interconnections with the reorganization of the role of the household within it. Notably, the tragic outcomes of the crisis should be understood as also dictated by the greatly damaging effects of decades of neoliberalization, austerity, and privatization of social reproduction, which as argued by Nancy Fraser, have produced a chronic crisis of care across the world economy. Households have been subject to a double squeeze. They have socialised this chronic crisis of care, while also being hit by declining income shares from paid employment. During the same period, in fact, labour markets experienced the feminization and informalisation of employment.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated an already critical situation in terms of socioeconomic inequality and the squeeze on social reproduction across the globe. However, the crisis may also lay the foundations for a rediscovered appreciation of the significance of social reproduction.

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Haemorrhaging Zambia: Prequel to the Current Debt Crisis

Following a stand-off with commercial creditors and protracted but unresolved negotiations with the IMF, Zambia defaulted on its external sovereign debt on 13 November this year. While most commentary has focused exclusively on the government’s sovereign borrowing, our own research has detected massive outflows of private wealth over the past fifteen years, hidden away on an obscure part of the country’s financial account. The outflows are most likely related to the large mining companies that dominate the country’s international trade. With many other African countries also facing debt distress, the lessons of this huge siphoning of wealth from the Zambian economy need extra attention within discussions about debt justice in the current crisis. We explain here what we’ve found.

Zambia was already debt-stressed going into the COVID pandemic. The economy was hard hit following the sharp fall in international copper prices from 2013 to 2016, especially that copper made up about 72% of its exports in 2018 (including unrefined, cathodes and alloys). Following a severe currency crisis in 2015, the government entered into negotiations with the IMF but never agreed on a programme. There was some improvement in macroeconomic outlook in 2017 due to rising copper prices, which sent international investors throttling back into optimism. However, international investors again turned against the country in 2018 in the midst of the global emerging market bond sell off, which compounded the effects of severe droughts in 2018-19. As a result, the government was already teetering on the edge of default on the eve of the COVID-19 pandemic. The economic fall-out of the pandemic has since pushed the country over the edge (see an excellent analysis here).

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‘Life On These Stones Is Very Hard’ – House Helps in Covid-19 Nairobi

Photo: Eric Kioko, August 2020.

By Mario SchmidtChristiane Stephan, Kawikya Judith Musa and Eric M. Kioko 

Panic! Rush! Empty sacks! Women running! Big cars passing by! Boom! All women stare at the same spot on the road: a car passing by. Within seconds, many of them rush towards it. One who was selling roasted maize, water and a few more goods leaves her place of work opposite the road and runs towards the vehicle as well. Panic and competition are in the air. Within a few minutes, the women come back, discouragement and lack of morale palpable in their bodies and faces. “What happened?”, one of those left seated asks. “The driver didn’t think we were this many, so he closed the car´s door and left!”

This scene gives insight into dynamic moments taking place along the roadsides of Nairobi’s affluent suburbs since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. It displays the intensified competition characterizing the job market for informal house helps looking for work and financial or material assistance. Suburbs like Kileleshwa or Kilimani present an unusual picture to those accustomed to see African cities through photographs of slums and shantytowns. Yet, here we have elegant residential areas mushroomed in leafy environments, roads with pedestrian walkways for cycling and jogging, cosmopolitan coffee joints, posh malls, and police patrols.

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Covid-19 and The Myth of Convergence: The West, the Rest and the urgent need for fiscal space in the Remainder

Imagining recovery, while a pandemic rumbles on, is an ominous task. But governments around the world have been forced to contend with this challenge. Several African, Asian and Latin American economies were in precarious financial positions before the pandemic hit. Fluctuations in global commodity prices in recent years and mounting trade deficits had already forced several African countries to request the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a range of support mechanisms including credit facilities. Debt was already reaching alarming levels. The pandemic made economic dependencies more salient, with Zambia plunging towards becoming Africa’s first pandemic-related private debt default

The recent thrust of research championing possible convergence (often based on questionable and selective use of data) between ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ countries ignores the vast range of economic trajectories of former colonies. In slapdash cross-country economic studies, a strategic use of averages and unreliable categorisation is often used to draw generalisations about large-scale change. Sweeping claims made about a rising ‘developing’ world often fail to isolate China’s rise. There is rarely any acknowledgment that most countries’ economies remain undiversified and deeply dependent on foreign actors. The data used to make the case for convergence often relies on GDP and human development indicators, rarely mentioning let alone measuring the structural transformation of economies. Structural transformation remains one of the essential facets of economies that have ‘caught up’ historically. Whether countries can retain fiscal space after this crisis will inevitably depend on the nature of structural transformation and how that has shaped national growth and dependency within the global economy.

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COVID-19: Dying for Sustainability?

The current pandemic might temporarily slow down environmentally destructive economic growth. However, claiming that we are dying for sustainability is dangerous. The global sustainability crisis is not just driven by uneconomic growth but also increasing global inequality and social stratification.

Growthmania

Suggesting that COVID-19 is a pathway to sustainability is tempting. Transnational oil corporations have halted production. Oil prices have tumbled. Plans for new oil explorations have been halted. Shale gas companies are folding up. Air travel has plummeted. So has road travel. Consequently, emission levels have dropped. Skies have cleared. Rare and remote species of animals appear to be back in sight. As recently demonstrated elsewhere, some of this optimism is based on questionable information. Others can be questioned for comparing long-term socio-ecological change with short-term outcomes of a pandemic.

Still, humanity seems to have rediscovered its sacrosanct relationship with nature. The ramifications are wide-ranging. Some employers now recognise that work can be done from home. With so many virtual conferences now taking place, it appears that international travel is not so much needed. Maybe not so many people are needed either. Australian philosopher, Peter Singer, welcomes the death of so many old people who are no longer productive. Perhaps the reduction in unsustainable population growth could also be welcome. A world that is small and serene has come.

Is this a plausible pathway to start the journey described in The Limits to Growthfirst published in 1972? The update of that work suggests that whatever the pathway, we must have limits to growth. That is evidently the argument made by political economists such as Ezra Mishan who coined the name ‘growthmania’ in The Costs of Economic Growth, published about a decade before The Limits to Growth.

Growthmania has become even more problematic in recent times.From this perspective, only a pandemic, a major rapture like COVID-19, can disrupt the path of unsustainable growth. Humanity appears to be dying for sustainability.

Over the years, however, the critique of the degrowth movement, suggests that the story is not as simple. The current socioecological crises are far more complexUneconomic growth, as Herman Daly calls it, is only one of them.

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