A week ago, my family and I tested positive for COVID.
With the country under a devastating second wave, it shouldn’t have been as much of a shock as it was, but nevertheless, it still was. We had been very careful, staying at home and disinfecting the occasional delivery package, but come that weekend, we found ourselves staring at the undeniable positive report.
After the initial shock, we managed to settle into a routine. Thankfully our symptoms were mild and managed at home, but the situation was still a delicate and difficult one, balancing both stresses and anxieties as well as physical symptoms of the illness. But we managed it, in no small part because of my mother.
We all did our best in this period of our convalescence but it was my mother who held it all together. From regimenting our many new medications to making sure we ate properly and healthily, my mother was doing everything. We were put on antibiotics, so it was my mother who ensured we had meals with proteins in it; she was the one who checked that we didn’t miss out on medications, who ensured that we checked our oxygen levels every day and recorded them, who came with hot tea or water when some of us were drowsing.
We managed it, in no small part because of my mother.
And it must have been exhausting.
Even writing about it is exhausting and a little sad. We definitely tried to help, but my mother swept in and took on the workload as if it was the most natural thing in the world. At a time, I should remind, that she was ill too. In the chronology of the illness in our household, my parents fell sick first and then us. By the time we got tested, it was my sister and I who were down with it. And my mother instantly took charge, despite not having fully recovered herself.
I can’t escape the responsibility that this places on the rest of my family; of course we should have helped more. And hopefully going forward, we will. But this also makes me want to interrogate the main problem: why is it that even when a household is in crisis, the central responsibility of managing everything falls on to the woman alone?
It was reported that, during the COVID19 pandemic, women spent more time doing housework and childcare duties compared to men. Even in normal circumstances (aka not during a global pandemic), women do much more unpaid care work and domestic work compared to men; in 2019, it was reported that more than 90% of Indian women participated in unpaid care work at home compared to 27% of men.
In a crisis like the current pandemic, when entire countries are relegated to homes, the work of caring for families and homes becomes visible in a way it never was before. More people realised how important and moreover, how difficult it is to look after a family, a task that hitherto has been left on the shoulders of the women alone. And not just in households either. Care work is a field that is disproportionately represented by women. From frontline healthcare workers to household caregivers to domestic workers – most are women. And it is a field that is underpaid and poorly compensated. And never has their task been as visibly critical as it is now.
During the COVID19 pandemic, women spent more time doing housework and childcare duties compared to men.
The fact that we now understand this should have been followed by a breakthrough in which we came together to banish gendered roles and redistribute tasks. Where we recognise this labour for what it is and offer to share and compensate it.
But that’s not what happened and that’s pretty clear from more than my story. In 2020, “women globally lost more than 64 million jobs, which equals 5% of the total jobs held by women.” Men, on the other hand, accounted for 3.9% of the jobs lost. Why? Because, as stated earlier, women are not only disproportionately represented in jobs that are poorly paid and in times of crisis, easily cut, but many women also found themselves forced to quit jobs under the increasing pressure of childcare, COVID-related responsibilities as well as household work at home.
More than 90% of Indian women participated in unpaid care work at home compared to 27% of men.
This situation isn’t unfixable, but we need to begin now. India Today, which quotes the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap report, states that while the pandemic has impacted women adversely across the globe, “the impact has been less in countries where active interventions were made to stem the decline.” And this is possible for us, once we recognise the central problem: that care work isn’t a ‘women’s job’ and therefore unworthy of consideration or recompense. It’s all our jobs and critical to us as a society.
The COVID crisis is more than a health crisis: it’s a social and economic crisis as well. And if there’s anything we’re learning, it’s that as we begin to pick up the pieces, we ensure that the heaviest burdens don’t fall on only some of us. We can do better. We must.