Care, Politics and COVID-19

Written By Brenda Reid
Galt Issue 4: Pause/Play, Published fall 2021

In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, “care” has become an increasingly commercialized, charged and weaponized word. It has been thrown around without due consideration of its meaning or its history. This text will offer a brief introduction to care theory and the politics of care within the Canadian experience of the pandemic.

Care

In our daily language, care is understood at a superficial level as “to like” or “to have concern for something.” The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it with 15 entries, using words such as suffering, apprehension, responsibility, attention, maintenance, and regard. The etymology of care finds its roots in karo, a Proto-Germanic base meaning “lament,” from which we get sorrow. To care is traceable to the Proto-Indo-European root gar, meaning “cry out, call, scream,” to make a sound.1 These roots paint a troubling picture of what it means to care. We can also understand the roots of care in relation to the survival of the human species. Our most basic need, to survive, is the original setting for care. In this way, care is indeed both uncomfortable and profoundly part of us.

Care has been well established as a relational activity that involves multiple people and activities. As a moral theory, Western society places value on justice well above an ethic of care. Justice, our foundational moral theory, uses abstract scenarios and universally applicable principles while care is situationally-based, requiring a detailed look at relationships between many actors. Care is concrete and complex, despite Western society’s obsession with reduction and simplicity. We can see oversimplifications in dominant “rational reasoning,” or justice-focused principles, and prevalent sex and gender binaries. These are examples of social constructions which simplify complex and fluid concepts, often for the benefit of a specific group—white supremacists, for example.

Contemporary US-based care theorists Berenice Fisher and Joan Tronto define care as a process containing four elements: care-about, care-taking, care-giving, and care-receiving.2 Acknowledging their non-linearity, Fisher and Tronto note that different people may address aspects of care, and perhaps not every element will occur within a care process. This approach also acknowledges other factors that affect care as a process, called ability factors, including time, material resources, knowledge, and skill. In beginning to understand the complexity of care relationships, it is helpful to start with these four elements:

Care-about: To “select out and attend to the features of our environment that bear on our survival and well-being.”3 There is an expectation in caring-about that the person paying attention has some knowledge about the subject. However, they do not require the ability factors of skill or material resources. It is very common to care about more things than we can act upon.

Care-taking: Deciding to take on the responsibility of care. Responsibility may seem like the simplest element; however, it is weighty and comes with a power imbalance between the care-giver and care-receiver. This element requires knowledge, good judgment, and time.

Care-giving: The work of care. This element requires all the ability factors: time, material resources, knowledge, and skill, as well as emotional and physical energy. Lack of time or resources can put incredible strain on care-givers and their relations with care-receivers (see Care-taking).

Care-receiving: The “response to care-giving by those to whom care is directed. […] [The] response may not be intentional, conscious, or even human.”4 It is a form of communication that provides information to the care-giver about how the care-receiver’s needs were met. The care-receiver often knows more about their needs because they experience them but might not be able to communicate those needs. This phase indicates a moment to re-evaluate and see how the need has been met (if it has) and address additional aspects or needs.

Politics

Care is tied to politics, as power is built into any care-based relationship. Within the container of Western society, it is impossible not to address how white supremacy shapes and suppresses care within our society. The origin of democracy, a governing structure we perceive as fair and equal, is built on political exclusion. Democracy requires equality between parties, however, care only exists in power imbalances. If all people within a democracy are equal, then there is no place for care.

Care has virtually no place in the description of “the good life” that provides a focus for Western philosophy, despite the fact that caring permeates our experience.

—Berenice Fisher and Joan Tronto, 19905

In ancient Athenian society, care roles existed outside of democracy and were taken on by people not considered full citizens or equals, including women, children, the poor, people with disabilities, enslaved people, and immigrants.6 Therefore democracy was available to privileged men born within and who upheld the system they actively benefitted from. Tronto offers a new definition of democracy: “Democracy is the allocation of caring responsibilities and assuring that everyone can participate in those allocations of care as completely as possible.”7 Tronto’s version of democracy sees care as fundamental to society.

There is a great deal of writing, including in non-intersectional white feminism, that attributes care as an inherent or intuitive behaviour of women as they have been designated “natural care-givers” by virtue of being a mother. This debate on moral development within the invention of the Western gender binary is tiresome. This narrative only serves to further a male-dominant white-oriented agenda that keeps women and often BIPOC folks doing care work. When we take a step back from this scenario of white men versus white women, we see many others who have historically carried the burden of care work and continue to be rendered invisible. Care work is continuously devalued; the most unwanted or unpleasant care-related jobs, such as waste removal, are pushed onto less privileged and marginalized groups, such as Black, Indigenous, and people of colour. Presently, through globalism, entire countries take on this work so that we can maintain our capitalist and consumerist society in North America.8

The distaste for dealing with complexity and discomfort in Western culture explains why privileged people pass off care’s discomfort whenever possible. Tronto writes:

The more power you have, the less care you can choose to perform. What it means to be powerful, in caring terms, is to be able to foist off the unpleasant parts of care onto others and to take on only the care duties we find worthwhile.8

However, those privileged in society do not merely pass it off to someone else. It becomes the responsibility of the people that society considers lesser. This othering that occurs and the disproportionate delegation of care responsibility have a long history which continues its cycles in our current society.

Care has also become widely regulated and professionalized, such as in health “care,” and can be difficult to access by groups of people who have been marginalized. Educator and activist Piepzna-Samarasinha writes about how people, especially in the sick and disabled QTBIPOC community, might be resistant to or altogether avoid institutionalized care. When care is used as charity and not in solidarity, it can be traumatic. People with chronic health needs may have to resort to other measures, like care webs, to live while protecting themselves from this trauma. Care webs can be formed between people in a system of solidarity, and their creation demands a rethinking of how care should be handled; it requires an entirely new system of care between participants, all while operating within a dominant culture that devalues and misuses care.10

There is an innocence portrayed in care. Care is not innocent and is used as a method of control and governance; it is inseparable from colonialism, racism, sexism, and capitalism. Care has been used as a banner of good to fly over countless acts of oppression. Within Canada, such oppressive acts include the abuse and withholding of care for Indigenous Peoples within the residential school system, the ongoing treatment of Indigenous communities, and the AIDS crisis, to offer a few examples.

COVID-19

Care is a practice; it is a skill that improves with experience and exposure. Therefore, under the “democratic” structure of our society, women and people of colour will have a more complex moral ethic of care than people who do not perform much care work. Within this stream of reasoning, the people in positions of immense power have little care experience or practice, as it is not culturally valued, and yet are responsible for taking care of cities, provinces, or countries. Ontario’s provincial government and Canada’s parliament are largely led by white men raised in a justice-based society who are unlikely to have developed a mature ethic of care by virtue of their privilege.11 The reality is that while these politicians wield enormous power that directly affects millions of peoples’ quality of life, they have little to no understanding of how to care for people. This lack of practice is painfully evident in the provincial and national handling of COVID-19.

While at times we have been distracted by skyrocketing numbers of COVID-19 infections and deaths in America, Canada is also facing a crisis of care within our government’s leadership. Leaders constantly push the responsibility to curb the pandemic onto the individual. They state so simply that if only people would stay home or wear a mask, the pandemic would end. They are not coming forward with solutions to the innumerable difficult situations that people find themselves in, opting for vague and universally applied “solutions” over and over again as the death toll continues to rise. For example, people were encouraged to stay home if they felt ill yet were not given paid sick leave.12 One common theme amongst national messages and media is the heroism of essential workers. It is their job to save us. Designating care work as heroic is an established tactic used by governing bodies to avoid providing appropriate support or care for the people they serve.13 They create an illusion that the heroes do it simply because they are good people. It is yet another narrative that makes privileged people who are not care workers or “essential” workers feel good for not participating in this dangerous work.14 The reality of treating care work as heroic work during this pandemic, without proper compensation, is brought painfully to our attention by Maya Menezes, an activist living in Tkaronto (Toronto):

Instead of arming these workers with what they need—permanent residency, fair wages, and labour regulations—we have been clapping for them from our balconies at a scheduled hour, as they march to their deaths.15

This quotation speaks of a fleeting communal show of appreciation to health care workers, where the general public was encouraged to clap, cheer, and bang pots and pans at a time aligned with the evening nurses’ shift change, which has since almost entirely died off. Menezes’s writing also refers to the dangerous conditions that some essential workers face. While medical staff are surrounded by people with confirmed cases of COVID-19, they also have medical training and proper PPE. Other essential workers, like grocery workers and migrant farm workers, do not. These “acts of solidarity” of clapping are not in fact solidarity, but actions that make us feel more comfortable with the care work disparity and the way in which we shelter ourselves from danger by heroizing care work.

Care is difficult to define. It is incredibly complex and inseparable from power and society. It is learned through experience and is therefore not inherent to any particular group of people. It is a practice full of mistakes that manages to support everything we do. In an anti-capitalist mindset, these mistakes are not failures but are reframed as a step towards sustainable, restful care practices. Researchers Aryn Martin, Natasha Myers, and Ana Viseu write:

“Staying with the trouble” that care sets in motion does not mean that we are left without means to act or to intervene; rather, it is by staying in the thick of things, by analyzing care’s non-innocent politics that our responses can be slowed down enough to make them more care-ful.16

Within the context of Canada, we can see how care has become weaponized politically, institutionally, and socially, and how media narratives continue to either heorize or erase care workers. Care is the foundation of our species—but perhaps care is also the greatest test of our humanity.

Brenda recommends:

Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha wrote this book, Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice (2018) from the experience of being a queer, sick, and disabled person of colour. It is an important perspective in care theory from a group of people most often overlooked, targeted, or purposely left out of conversations on care work.

Footnotes:

1. “Origin and Meaning of Care,” Online Etymology Dictionary, accessed June 1, 2021; “Definition of ‘CARE’,” Merriam-Webster, accessed June 1, 2021.

2. Berenice Fisher and Joan C. Tronto, “Toward a Feminist Theory of Caring,” in Circles of Care, eds. Emily K. Abel and Margaret K. Nelson (Albany: SUNY Press, 1990), 40.

3. Fisher and Tronto, “Toward a Feminist Theory,” 41.

4. Fisher and Tronto, “Toward a Feminist Theory,” 45.

5. Fisher and Tronto, “Toward a Feminist Theory,” 35.

6. Joan C. Tronto, “When we Understand Care, We’ll Need to Redefine Democracy,” in Who Cares?: How to Reshape a Democratic Politics. 1st ed., (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2015), 3–16.

7. Tronto, “When we Understand Care,” 15.

8. Shannon Mattern, “Maintenance and Care,” Places Journal (November 2018).

9. Tronto, “When we Understand Care,” 3–16.

10. Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice (Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2018).

11. Justin Trudeau is the current Prime Minister of Canada and Doug Ford is the Premier of Ontario.

12. Paid sick leave was a topic frequently brought to the provincial government throughout the pandemic. It was especially important for people who could not afford to miss work. Ontario introduced paid COVID-19 leave of only three days in April 2021, over a year after the onset of the pandemic. “Ontario to Introduce Paid COVID-19 Leave,” Province of Ontario, April 28, 2021.

13. Care work is often labelled as heroic or not recognized at all. The suffering of care work will go uncompensated if they are a hero, and unacknowledged and uncompensated if the care work is in the undesirable category. Mattern, “Maintenance and Care.”

14. Briarpatch Magazine, a radical Canadian publisher based in Saskatchewan, published writing on both the failure of our government’s coronavirus actions and the government’s failure to treat all of our lives as equally important.

15. Maya Menezes, “Migrant Workers Are the Present and Future of Low-Carbon Care Work,” Briarpatch Magazine, January 14, 2021.

16. Aryn Martin, Natasha Myers, and Ana Viseu, “The Politics of Care in Technoscience,” Social Studies of Science 45, no. 5 (October 2015): 636.