Symposium 4: Covid-19 and the centrality of care: childcare, the State, and undoing ‘gendered’ responsibilities around paid and unpaid care work

Convenors: Elena Moore (University of Cape Town) and Sara Cantillon (Glasgow School for Business and Society)

This symposium examines the state’s response to the care for young children during the pandemic and the implications for challenging ‘gendered’ assumptions and responsibilities around paid and unpaid care work. It looks at case studies across the Globe (UK, South Africa, Brazil and Italy) to explore the ways in which the pandemic changes or reinscribes traditional patterns of care for young children. In almost all countries, the Covid-19 lockdown brought about the closure of all preschools, nurseries, early child centres, with parents and caregivers expected to work from home while caring for their children. The need for ‘time’ between care responsibilities and paid work did not only revolve around a ‘balance’ but also the ability to carve out time for paid work which was experienced unevenly across race, class and gender divides. During the Covid-19 outbreak, time became very short and was negotiated with different actors including the State. In some countries the state embarked on specific programmes to manage childcare services for essential workers. In others, the state failed to even be attentive to the care needs of parents. State responses to how childcare for young children was managed during the pandemic, comes back to how childcare has been enabled, supported and managed in different countries. Research findings since the start of the pandemic indicates the heightening of traditional patterns of care along race, gender and class lines. But it also suggests that men are becoming more involved in childcare and household responsibilities. By mapping out the response of the state to childcare across the Global South and North, we shine a light on how, and for whom, the pandemic has made ‘care’ visible and whether this ‘visibility’ is transient or in fact engendering longer-term change, particularly around the disrupting of gendered responsibilities for paid and unpaid care work.

4 named paper authors

  • Elena Moore and Nonzuzo Mbokazi, University of Cape Town: ‘‘We have not given it full consideration”: The South African state’s response to care and caring for young children during Covid-19
  • Sara Cantillon and Nina Teasdale, Glasgow Caledonian University: On the verge of collapse? Covid-19, the State and the provision of childcare. Exploring the pillars propping up the UK sector.
  • Renata Moreno, Sao Paulo: Covid-19, women’s work in childcare public services, families and neighbourhoods in Brasil
  • Allesandra Milleno and Lidia Manzo, University of Milan: Mothers, childcare duties, and remote working under COVID-19 lockdown in Italy: Cultivating communities of care

Discussant: Angela O’Hagan, Glasgow Caledonian University

Detailed description of the papers’ contributions

  • ‘‘We have not given it full consideration”: The South African state’s response to care and caring for young children during Covid-19
Elena Moore and Nonzuzo Mbokazi, Department of Sociology, University of Cape Town

This article demonstrates the state’s wilful neglect of care and caring by focussing on the needs of care for young children and their caregivers during the Covid-19 pandemic. We argue that the state’s ignorance of the different levels of care and care needs of young children including the early child development needs of the children and the needs of primary caregivers, professional caregivers and the wide sector of early childcare highlights the systemic failure of the state’s duty to care, protect and provide for children. Whilst other parts of the world were supporting at least some level of care for essential workers, the South African Minister of Basic Education as late as 30 April 2020 (5 weeks into heavy lockdown), answered a question at a press conference about when Early Child Development Centres (ECD) will reopen by saying that the question had “come out repeatedly”, but that they had “not given it full consideration”. Compared to other parts of the world, care for young children and their carers, was not even an afterthought. We outline how the failure occurred at three intersecting and connected levels. Firstly, the state failed to issue subsidies, cater for or support care centres with the ensuing result of thousands of job losses and ECD closures and suspension of food programmes. Secondly we demonstrate the failure of the state to treat primary caregivers as citizens in the design of the state economic relief package which excluded primary caregivers of children who already received a social grant on behalf of their child, from applying for a special Covid-19 grant, akin to a basic income grant. Thirdly, by drawing on the findings of care practices amongst a sample of low-income employed black South African mothers with young children during Covid-19, we argue that the state’s failure to be attentive to the needs of care and caregivers and the wider early childcare sector resulted in low-income black women carrying the responsibility and cost of care at a time of extensive job losses and food insecurity. The findings reveal the reinscription of traditional patterns of care based along gendered, racialised and classed lines. We argue that the negligence is indicative of the state’s marginalisation of matters of care even at a time when care became a central question across the globe. We reflect on how we understand care and its possible future in such contexts given the state’s inattentiveness to all levels of care for young children and their caregivers.

  • On the verge of collapse? Covid-19, the State and the provision of childcare. Exploring the pillars propping up the UK sector.
Sara Cantillon and Nina Teasdale, Glasgow Caledonian University

While historically childcare in the UK has been understood as a family and individual responsibility, policy dramatically shifted under the New Labour government (1997-2010) with the initial roll-out in the late 1990s of universal free part-time early education for 3 and 4 year olds in England, with similar policies operating in the other UK nations. This was accompanied by various forms of tax credits and childcare vouchers aimed at reducing childcare costs for working parents (Naumann, 2015). Despite substantial investment, the UK system is complex and the cost of childcare has remained high compared to other countries. There have also been long-term problems with availability and the underfunding of childcare providers to deliver the free state entitlement (Coleman et al., 2020). In this paper, we argue that Covid-19 has exposed not only the centrality of care to social and economic life (WBG, 2020), but also the fragility of the UK childcare sector – with it recently being described as on the ‘verge of collapse’ (Siddiq, 2020). Indeed, despite the UK government’s recognition of the importance of childcare to allow key workers to work during the national lockdown, the childcare sector has since been neglected in its recovery planning. We draw upon a range of qualitative and quantitative data, reports and studies published since the start of the pandemic to explore through a gender and intersectional lens the factors or key pillars propping up the UK sector. This includes grandparents, family and friends as informal and wraparound carers, especially for lower paid workers; and the reliance of state policy on poorly paid and undervalued childcare workers and mothers reducing their hours or moving into part-time work to reconcile work-family responsibilities. The paper concludes by considering the consequences for gender equality and transcending gendered notions of the division of labour, as well as the conceptual importance of care work as central to the intersecting and intertwining of the social and the economic, and the policymaking underpinning it.

  • Childcare, food security and responsibilities: State inefficiency and women’s work during the pandemic in Brazil
Renata Moreno, SOF

In Brazil the access to childcare facilities is characterized by great regional and income inequalities. Therefore, women’s work (paid and unpaid) in families and neighbourhoods plays a key role in providing childcare in a scenario of care injustice, intensified by the neoliberal adjustment policies since 2016. This article discusses the effects of the covid-19 pandemic on childcare arrangements from the perspective of women’s work, considering the interfaces between State and family, and State and community. The analysis runs along two axes. The first focuses on women’s work: the role played by childcare workers (of public facilities) in their relationship with children and their families during the pandemic, in face of the slow response of public authorities; and the pandemic effects in the daily paid and unpaid work of women who are responsible, in their families, for children. The second axis of analysis discusses the effects of the disruption of day care centres on the food security of children, critically analysing the insufficient response of the State on this matter. The analysis problematizes the processes (public, private and/or precarious) of taking responsibility for care, its changes and continuities during the covid-19 pandemic. The reference of this analysis is the city of São Paulo, particularly a public day-care centre and its surroundings in a peripheral neighbourhood of this capital.

  • Mothers, childcare duties, and remote working under COVID-19 lockdown in Italy: Cultivating communities of care
Alessandra Minello, (Florence University) and Lidia Manzo (University of Milan)

Drawing on a virtual ethnography and expanding on existing research, the paper explores how the increase in remote working has created unequal domestic rearrangements of parenting duties with respect to gender relations during the COVID-19 lockdown in Italy. We also discuss the resources that mothers have mobilized to create a network of social support in the organization of care.

Posted in Conference 2021, Symposia.