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Care in the Time of Coronavirus: Why care work needs to be at the centre of a post-COVID-19 feminist future

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We are in an unprecedented moment globally. The market economy, which is focused on making, purchasing and selling goods or services, has slowed, while the unpaid care economy is operating in hyperdrive.
Social distancing, coronavirus prevention measures and related government responses have paused some public services while putting additional constraints and pressure on others. This has led to more time being spent on unpaid care and domestic work such as preparing meals and cleaning, as well as caring for children and other family members. Restrictions on movement mean that all family members are now at home to witness – and potentially take part in – household work that was previously invisible.

As a global community, we entered this moment on the shaky foundations of gender inequality caused by an uneven distribution of care work, compounded in many contexts by other social identities based on ethnicity, income, race, disability, indigeneity, education, and migration status. Before the pandemic, women’s ability to earn a living or live a life free from poverty was already constrained by the heavy and unequal nature of unpaid care and domestic work.1 Globally, even before the pandemic hit, 42% of women of working age said they were unable to do paid work because of their unpaid care and domestic work responsibilities – compared to just 6% of men.2 This paper presents findings from research conducted in five countries: the USA, Great Britain, Canada, The Philippines, and Kenya, as well as supplementary information on a related programme in Tunisia. The findings represent experiences both from high income countries, as well as those from urban poor and marginalized communities in the Philippines, and in the informal settlements of Nairobi, Kenya. The aim was to gauge people’s understanding of their current unpaid care realities due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Oxfam acknowledges the contributions of many partner organizations in the development of this research as indicated in the acknowledgements section at the end of this document.

The research methods (see Annex) included rapid polling in the USA, online surveys in the Great Britain and Canada, in-depth phone interviews and online surveys in the Philippines, and surveys conducted via mobile phones in Kenya. The polls, surveys and questionnaires shared certain questions which enabled cross-country comparisons. The research explored how COVID-19 and related lockdown measures have affected women’s and men’s unpaid care workloads, how this varies across different contexts and by race, ethnicity, income, age, and type of household (single or dual parent), and the impact this is having on health, economic security and wellbeing.

The findings suggest that COVID-19 and the related containment efforts have caused further increases in women’s – and men’s – unpaid care workloads. While in all five countries studied, men are contributing more time to unpaid and domestic care work, women are still doing the bulk of this work. Around half (44%–55%) of women surveyed report that they are now spending more time on unpaid care and domestic work as a result of COVID-19 and containment measures. This has real consequences for the health, economic security and wellbeing of these women and their families: across all five countries, almost half (43%) of women surveyed said they were feeling more anxious, depressed, overworked, isolated or physically ill because of their increased unpaid care and domestic workload during the pandemic.