Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Families, caring and COVID-19

Tina Miller

I’m not a regular tweeter, but on Sunday evening (10-05-20) was driven to reach for my phone as Boris Johnson signed off from his ‘keep alert’ broadcast, next-steps-in-the-pandemic, rallying call (@proftinamiller). This was because in a 14+ minute speech there was no mention of family, even as families sat in expectation, hope and lockdown, to hear what happens next in the government’s coronavirus pandemic management. My tweet urged a more ‘emotionally-intelligent’ approach, which recognised that being ‘led by the science’ (more of this later) also required familial experiences to be part of the equation and planning. Perhaps I should not have been surprised – given more than 20 years as a sociologist researching significant transitions in family lives and recognising – that whilst ‘family’ is ubiquitous, it is also often invisible and taken-for-granted.

But families have been central in the Coronavirus pandemic. Depending on where we were as the lockdown was announced in the UK, we may have spent weeks apart from loved ones or been shut up with those we might wish to escape. It is the more than 36,000[1] members of families, who have so far lost their lives to the virus. It is their family members who have been left to mourn alone, whilst watching funeral services on Zoom and carrying the pain of loss without being able to accept physical comfort from others. COVID-19 has reminded us of that our connections to others are core to how we operate and understand ourselves in the social world. In unprecedented ways, we are sharing across households the path of the virus and this has illuminated the sad inequalities, which also pattern lives in unfair and now potentially fatal, ways.

COVID-19 has reminded us all that relationships of care, caring and care work are fundamental to any society: that a capacity to care and feel a sense of a responsibility to care is also a human attribute, before it is shaped by gendered societal arrangements. Yet, historical practice has particularly conflated women’s capacities and contributions in care work in such ways that have rendered it largely invisible. The advent of the pandemic has laid bare the vital care work which goes on in all sorts of settings, up and down the country, day in and day out, and reminded us in sobering ways of its value – and of its human cost. And as we clap on Thursday evenings, for the low paid care workers who have always been there, but now emerge as ‘key workers’, let’s make a mental note to reflect on what and who should be valued, as we emerge from the pandemic into economically-straightened times.

As we all live through the sort of global human experiment, that would never get past a University research ethics committee, I’m sadly unsurprised by the myriad inequalities that have been revealed in the communities found to be most at risk. I’m exasperated by continual assertions in the daily televised government briefings, that they are being ‘led by the science’, as though this were a fixed and irrefutable thing. But I am also trying to be heartened by the changes that might result from this unprecedented period and which have been central themes in my research and publications. And so the ‘stay at home’ and ‘work from home if you can’ messaging means that in future, no one will ask a stay-at-home parent how they fill their days; the ways in which family life could be fitted around paid work in more flexible ways is being trialled; the hard work of parenting – and especially for those coping alone, or new to parenthood, will be freshly appreciated and the importance of family, friends and communities will have been underscored. But the association between low paid care work and those losing their lives to the virus, should continue to make us all uncomfortable.

[1] https://www.gov.uk/guidance/coronavirus-covid-19-information-for-the-public (accessed 21/05/20)

Making Sense of Parenthood by Tina Miller
Making Sense of Parenthood by Tina Miller

About The Author

Tina Miller

Tina Miller is a Professor of Sociology at Oxford Brookes University in the UK. Her research interests include family lives and transitions, gender and identities and reproductive ...

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