The COVID-19 pandemic put the importance of care workers in the limelight. In cities around the world, lockdowns were punctuated by moments of cheer and admiration as we stood in our streets, balconies and open windows to clap, bang pots or sing in recognition of frontline workers that were battling this unforeseen enemy in the shape of a virus.
But behind this show of solidarity, the reality is a dark one: unprepared and understaffed health systems, where grueling working hours and lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) exposed health workers to fatal hazards as they responded to the most challenging global health emergency in recent times.
And behind health workers there is another layer: the cleaners, the carers and the domestic workers. Most of them women often doing undervalued, unpaid and often under paid care work.
By now, the figures are clear: the socioeconomic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic has derailed progress toward gender equality globally. As labor markets suffered globally, women have dropped out of the workforce at a greater rate than men and according to Foreign Policy, women were 22 percent more likely to lose employment in comparison to men.
Women are now undertaking almost as much unpaid care work as a full-time job. Care work, which is highly feminized, is undervalued and often unpaid or underpaid.
Before the pandemic, women were spending on average three times as many hours on unpaid domestic and caring work. After COVID-19 hit, the average woman now spends nearly the equivalent of a full-time job doing unpaid childcare—a full working day a week more than the average man.
As the global economy faced its worst downturn since the Great Depression, inequality continued to prevail as the pandemic recession has led to more job losses among women than among men. As lockdowns kicked in and schools shut down, millions of women were either pushed out of their jobs or were forced to downsize their careers. The IMF event went as far as describing the COVID-19 she-cession as “the employment penalty of taking care of young children.”
Despite kids being back in school, the dearth of child care is still proving to be a major hurdle to women reentering the labor market. Critical to closing this gap is that those women, often black and brown, continued to be underpaid and often face precarious work conditions.
In the United States alone, nearly 3.2 million people—a majority women, and mostly women of color—play an essential role in caring for the elderly, for people with disabilities, and for young children. Their work allows parents and family caregivers to go to work. In short: they are essential and allow the economy to continue to move forward. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, home care is the fourth largest occupation in the country.
As we mark the first Global Day of Action for Care, the policy asks are no-brainers and it is clear that investing in decent care makes good economic sense: it enables women to return to the workforce while at the same time energizing a significant sector of the labor market. It’s a win-win.
The time is now to reverse the entrenched structural inequalities across gender, class and, in many cases, racial and ethnic lines. Investment by both public and private actors in universal, equitable, quality, public and gender transformative health and care systems is needed now.