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A springboard for change? Opportunities for a sustainable and inclusive care system post-Covid

As we look beyond the pandemic and towards recovery, we need to build the work back better by putting care at the heart of the development agenda

Esuna migrant workers

Essays on Equality – Covid-19 edition: Global and intersectional perspectives

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Esuna Dugarova is a Policy Specialist and Research Coordinator of the COVID-19 Global Gender Response Tracker at the United Nations Development Programme.

The Covid-19 pandemic has acted as a multiplier of pre-existing inequalities, exposing intrinsic power imbalances and an unequal distribution of resources and opportunities that are rooted in patriarchy and gender-based discrimination. But at the same time, the crisis has brought to light in an unprecedented way the critical role of care, providing an opportunity to build the world back better by putting care – and social reproduction in a broader sense – at the heart of the development agenda.

Gender gaps in unpaid care work persist across different races and ethnicities. New studies that integrate an intersectional perspective show that unpaid care and domestic work demands during the Covid-19 pandemic increased more sharply for Black or African American, Hispanic or Latinx, and Asian respondents than for White respondents. Such race-based unpaid care gaps can be explained by the fact that racial and ethnic minorities are more likely to live in poverty, in larger families with multiple generations, and with less access to childcare and health services, all of which results from entrenched multi-faceted socioeconomic inequalities linked to systemic racism.

Despite the widely referenced disproportionate impacts of the pandemic, the global policy response has largely been blind to gender equality. As shown by the latest data from the UNDP-UN Women Covid-19 Global Gender Response Tracker, only 7.3 per cent of over 3,000 social protection and labour market measures in 221 countries directly supported unpaid care work. This can be partly attributed to the underrepresentation of women in political decision-making. Evidence shows that women’s political participation is integral to shaping gender-responsive policymaking. Yet, while women have been on the frontlines of the Covid-19 battleground – as care providers, health workers, entrepreneurs, and educators – they have been relegated to the backseat of pandemic decision-making. Notably, the tracker reveals that, globally, women account for only 24 per cent of members of 262 national Covid-19 taskforces.

Nonetheless, there are some promising practices that can be leveraged, both in the ongoing pandemic response and as we look towards recovery from the Covid-19 crisis. To support working parents’ care responsibilities during school and childcare facilities closure, countries across regions have provided new or extended existing paid parental leave schemes. For example, in Austria, employees with care responsibilities could take up to three weeks of care leave with full wage replacement, with a third of the salary reimbursed to the employer by the government. In the Caribbean Island, Nevis, all public servants with children in preschool or day-care could take paid leave so that they can stay at home with children for the initial period of six weeks. Despite the widespread facility closures, in several countries care institutions remained open to provide care support for children of essential service workers.

Many countries also provided income support to parents during the Covid-19 crisis, including through the monetary compensation for the loss of jobs or reduction of working hours, family benefits and child allowances. Germany, Portugal, and Slovenia set up wage subsidies for carers to cover the salary of parents or those looking after sick family members during the pandemic. Finland, as part of its national social insurance, offered a sickness allowance to providers of children placed under quarantine, which gave full compensation for the loss of income incurred during a period of absence from work. In Argentina, women who received a universal maternity benefit, and beneficiaries of the Universal Child Allowance, received additional cash payments. Bosnia and Herzegovina, Mongolia, and Spain allowed parents to reduce work hours for Covid-19-related family care.

The gendered impacts of the pandemic point to the pressing need for a global policy action that prioritises unpaid care work. While the Covid-19 pandemic is reversing many of the gains on gender equality, it can serve as a springboard to create a more egalitarian and resilient system. Care needs to be considered a universal right and must be put at the heart of the global and national agenda. At the national level, this entails creating comprehensive care systems that enhance support to working parents with childcare responsibilities by expanding access to paid family leave and paid sick leave, improve gender-responsive services through the universal provision of quality care services, and prioritise investments in social and physical infrastructure to meet the different care needs of the population. At the same time, care policy arrangements need to be complemented with labour market policies that support (re-)integration of workers into the labour force, including through (re-)training programmes and skills development that will prepare them for the new demands of the post-Covid labour market, improve flexible work arrangements for both male and female workers with care responsibilities, and legislate to protect the rights of all workers in both formal and informal sectors. In addition to care and labour market policies, a supportive macroeconomic environment is also important, with adequate fiscal and monetary policies that shape budgets and make resources available to build more gender-responsive, resilient and egalitarian societies.

In line with these recommendations, we must push for systemic change involving fundamental shifts in power, institutions, and norms. Such an approach is not only a development imperative but also a precondition for sustainable and inclusive future.