Caregivers, paid and unpaid, often bear the brunt of outbreaks. Paid caregivers cannot work remotely and many front line care providers are poorly paid, have little job security, and have limited benefits or none at all. They are forced to work sick – both because financially they need to, but also because people need to be dressed, bathed, and fed.
For home-based caregivers the situation is equally problematic. As the parent of a medically fragile young adult if my caregivers cannot work because they are ill, or if we need to impose a period of self-quarantine to protect our son, it means that I may be required to step into 24-hour care for an indefinite period of time. How long can I sustain that care before comprising my own health?
Society largely views caregiving as women’s work – women are expected to care out of a sense of duty and devotion. This means, that statistically speaking, caregivers are almost always women who are often poorly paid, or unpaid, Their work is demanding and poses risks to their health and well-being at times. Caregiving is usually invisible and undervalued by society. Caregivers provide care during private, and often socially taboo, activities such as toileting, bathing, and dressing. These are activities we don’t usually talk about. The work is performed behind closed doors. This creates a toxic situation where the work of caregivers is easily ignored and taken for granted. As a result, our society socially and financially benefits from the generosity and devotion of women who tirelessly show up, day after day, and perform exhausting and physically demanding labour that we’d prefer not to see or hear about.
Think for a moment. What if we had to pay unpaid caregivers? What if stay-at-home mothers, or women who support their parents, partners, and children with disabilities, all decided that they could no longer shoulder the burden of care and demanded support? What of COVID-19 means that support workers cannot perform their jobs? How would our world respond? Part of me would love to see that happen. The impact on society would be immense. It won’t happen because society leans on the fact that women care both because of their love and concern for the person requiring care, but also to be blunt, because no one else is stepping in to help. We are not prepared to see anyone, much less someone we love, remain isolated, alone, unbathed, and soiled in their bed. We will show up sick and provide care. We will provide care even when the situation far exceeds our abilities. We do this because we care.
Caregiving women pay a steep price on behalf of a callous world that undervalues their labour yet benefits enormously. Female caregivers, according to the research, are often isolated, exhausted, overextended. We leave our jobs, miss out on social activities, and experience emotional, physical and spiritual consequences.
Situations like COVID-19 bring the matter into sharp focus. What if our caregivers get sick and can no longer care? What about care providers who will work sick because there is no one else to care, or because they cannot take a sick day? To protect ourselves and our loved ones who might get ill we need to value the work of caregiving women at all times, not just during public health crises. This means that in care facilities we need to ensure that there is adequate staff who are reasonably paid, enjoy good job security, and who have excellent health care benefits. Unpaid caregivers who provide care for vulnerable people also require supports such as generous respite, as well as robust community-based supports for both the caregiver and their family member.