Geographers Examine the Extent of 'Care Labor' During the Pandemic

Professors Lopez and Neely say that by highlighting social inequities, COVID-19 may spur change.

The pandemic has fundamentally changed how Americans understand the meaning of "care labor," and has laid bare the race- and class-based disparities in access to health care and the social safety net, say Assistant Professor of Geography Patricia Lopez and Assistant Professor of Geography Abigail Neely.

"I teach a class, 'Global Poverty and Care,' and before this, it would take me five weeks to convince the students that working at Novack Cafe, working in a warehouse, doing this everyday labor is care labor," Lopez says. "Now I'm never going to have to do that again. I've actually restructured the whole class because there's no more convincing."

Lopez and Neely are interviewing caregivers in the Upper Valley and in the Seattle area for their study, "The Social and Political Implications of COVID-19 for Care Labor in the U.S.," evaluating differences in experiences in rural and urban communities. The project is funded in part through the Office of the Provost, thanks to an anonymous donation supporting "Spark" grants for innovative research related to the coronavirus pandemic. The project also received funding from the Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for Public Policy.

Suddenly, the critical role that service industry workers, educational support staff, warehouse and delivery workers, in addition to front-line health care workers and teachers, play in maintaining the health and wellbeing of society, is unmistakable, the researchers say.

This new understanding, coupled with a new awareness of structural racism spurred on by nationwide protests and conversations around the killing of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement, amounts to a national awakening, Neely says.

"Consciousness-raising almost undersells it. I think this has been life altering," Neely says. "Because the only way to prevent the harm of this pandemic is to care for one another, politics—for the first time in our lifetime—is framed around care."

Among the findings from the interviews was the scope of the emotional labor burden that caregivers, a majority of them women, have taken on in addition to their professional work over the past year, Neely says. This includes challenges such as home-schooling young children, protecting elder parents physically and emotionally, tending to daily household needs during quarantine, and even helping colleagues and supervisees at work cope with challenges brought on by the pandemic.

"And yet many of these people feel guilty and apologize, or say, 'I'm really lucky,' " says Lopez. "I've heard that in every single interview regardless of what's happened in their lives in the last year. It is almost a sense of guilt for their good fortune at not having lost their job or being able to care for themselves when they have lost a job."

Many caregivers have reached the point of physical and emotional exhaustion, in large part because the social safety net has been dismantled over the past 40 years, Lopez and Neely say.

Says Lopez, "I do have some trepidation about the mental and physical health challenges that we as a whole world of people are going to have to contend with at some point."

But the fact that there is a broad public discussion about the effects of the pandemic on women, about higher death rates, illness rates, and falling-behind-in-school rates among Black, Indigenous, and Latinx families is a step in the right direction, they say.

"We say there have been all these failures, but there's a model here that we saw last summer in the uprisings, and with BLM, and in the responses of what we call the social body, grassroots organizations, community or neighborhood support. It's a roadmap that starts with the recognition that we can only succeed as we care for each other in relationships that go from individuals to communities, to your town or city, and then state government and national government," Neely says.

"This moment of converging pandemics of disease and racism offers possibilities for a new, more caring politics attuned to difference and built from a basic premise that everyone is entitled to the building blocks of a healthy life."

For the latest information on Dartmouth's response to the pandemic visit the COVID-19 website.

William Platt can be reached at william.c.platt@dartmouth.edu