Irish feminists need to mobilise for a post-pandemic future built on an ethic of public care

By Pauline Cullen and Mary Murphy, Maynooth University

Women’s voices in Ireland have not been heard during the pandemic. Covid Women’s Voices, a diverse range of female workers observe daily the gendered realities of the pandemic and call for publicly funded childcare for frontline workers, in-person schooling for children of essential workers, and special protections for care workers living in shared accommodation. The facts bear out their lived experience. Successive and severe lockdowns have closed schools, childcare and supports for older people and those with disabilities for long periods of time placing significant burdens on women. Inequality in domestic care work and homeschooling is not just draining, but leads to serious career inequalityWomen comprise almost 80% of healthcare workers and six in 10 carers, and 70% of low paid essential workers. The Health Protection Surveillance Centre found 77 per cent of Covid-19 cases among healthcare workers are female. Moreover, gendered, racialised and class based inequalities are reinforced and deepened during the pandemic. Traveller and Roma communities, asylum seekers, migrants and homeless families, often headed by female lone parents, are at most risk of poverty and living in overcrowded and/or congregated settings are more likely to contract COVID -19.

Inconceivably, there are no women on Ireland’s governmental committee on Health and Covid-19. The Irish Parliamentary Committee on COVID 19 rejected proposals from the National Women’s Council to have a specific focus on women’ s experience of the pandemic. Instead, crisis management has reflected deep-seated gendered assumptions. A poor and largely privatized care infrastructure is a product of cultural lag that situates women as primary carers and a market led approach to services leaves the state ill-equipped to meet societal needs. Unpaid care work is seen as an infinite elastic resource woman provide to absorb care needs, with no ethic of care informing or underpinning Ireland’s pandemic responses.

Our feminist critique of pandemic crisis management in Ireland draws on empirical data analysing state and civil society crisis responses in care, income support and gender based violence. We conclude that state crisis management remains indifferent to the unequal gendered effects of the pandemic. Such responses engender thin and calculative forms of societal solidarity under the trope ‘we are in this together’.

Ireland’s gendered welfare and tax system assigns many women dependent status and requires some lone parents receiving income support to seek full‐time work with little exception for care responsibilities. The Irish government crisis response differentiated entitlements to pre and post COVID‐19 claimants, restricting many women in poverty dependent on pre-pandemic state payments to lower levels of income support. The main income support response the Pandemic Unemployment Payment (PUP) is worth at least 40% more than the mainstream gendered welfare payment. Unintentionally positive in gendering income support possibilities, it is administered as an individualized payment with no household or childcare assessment. This was seized upon by feminists to argue for an individualization of income support and to avoid female recipients of PUP losing in a return to a household means tested payment and to eligibility criteria ignorant of part‐time work and care. Such a return to “normal” may reinforce traditional care roles whereby unemployed women may have to respond to unmet care and domestic needs through “economic inactivity.”

Nonetheless, we find some traction of feminist knowledge and examples where feminist expertise compelled the state to act. These included welcome innovative state and civil society crisis responses and collaboration in relation to gender violence and homelessness. Civil society crisis responses are more experientially grounded in forms of gender knowledge that reflect complex intersectional realities of communities who live in permanent crisis. Feminists responded with strong attempts to frame care outside of marketized rationales and income support outside of a male breadwinner welfare system, to define childcare as an essential public service and underline the value of largely female “frontline workers”.

A feminist alternative narrative for public services organised through a care ethic argues for a new focus on interdependency of care and affective justice. A careful post pandemic policy could reconcile care obligations, individualize income and promote women’s economic independence. However, the Irish state continues to resist a shift to universal public childcare. Despite poor pandemic outcomes in care homes, the state maintains support for marketizing care services, and their related reliance on female dominated unpaid and low paid care work. More than ever feminist leadership must mobilise for a politics of public investment in care and for the state to be at the heart of a de-commodified political economy and service provision.

This blog post was originally published on the Gendering Covid-19 Social Policy blog, and is re-published here with permission.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s