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by Michael Fine and Joan Tronto
3rd March 2022

As the pandemic took hold two years ago, the word on every screen was ‘unprecedented’. Across five continents, the editorial committee of our journal, the International Journal of Care and Caring, thought long and hard at its first virtual meeting under pandemic conditions about how to respond to this unprecedented, world-changing event.

Once the first practical questions about our survival under diverse regimes of home isolation had been aired, we battled problems of limited bandwidth, microphones on mute and unpredictable online drop-outs to consider if this was a topic that the journal should tackle. What could we possibly contribute to the emerging global panic that would be of value?

Fear was visceral, at once both collective and personal. The urgency of stopping the spread of the still mysterious disease and preventing the death toll rising was tangible. We wanted to hear from the medical and scientific experts ourselves on how to combat the disease. Even as they began reluctantly to pay attention to the medical advice, leaders everywhere seemed preoccupied with the economic effects of the closure of business, trade, industry. Their belief in herd immunity and the virtues of getting back to normal as quickly as possible seemed to express an alternative version of common sense. As ordinary citizens, we were caught in the middle, aghast, counting the costs as many national leaders put their countries to the test.

Our collective editorial decision at that online meeting was to put out a call for research papers and other contributions for a special issue of the journal. The focus would be on the impact of the pandemic on care. Although we had no idea if there would be any submissions, let alone sufficient for a full volume, we all agreed we had to move fast. The pandemic was expected to be over by the end of the year.

Now almost two years on, as the special issue is published, it is inspiring to look over the final publication. It brings together a unique international collection of 12 original articles on research and theory, six contributions to the journal’s ‘Debates and Issues’ section, and four engaging and original book and conference reviews – alongside a thoughtful editorial and overview which we, as editors, have had the opportunity to contribute.

The special edition provides a valuable opportunity to look beyond the political and the focused medical/scientific accounts of the pandemic’s causes, effects and potential remedies. It brings together original research and reflections that enable readers to consider more deeply the impact of the pandemic on care. In place of the tables of hospital admissions, ICU cases and deaths, and the ever-more-shrill political hectoring, the papers in the edition open up a world of personal experience and long-hidden injustices. There are glimpses, too, of different visions, new and innovative approaches to care that extend way beyond the immediate horizon.

It is neither necessary nor possible to summarise such a diverse collection here. But it is worth drawing attention to at least some of the many contributions.

Tobias Haeusermann, Heather Romero-Kornblum and Elizabeth Dzeng, for example, draw together theory and ethnography in ‘Of care, cure and the in-between: COVID-19 treatment in a New York City intensive care unit’. They document much of what went on behind the hermetically sealed doors of a public hospital and reflect on the contributions of health care workers in the first and terrifyingly deadly stage of the pandemic. Providing for strangers in conditions that can easily lead to your own death seems to fly in the face of the economic logic that drives market societies. This article probes and dissects the usual rationales given, teasing out the distinctions between care and cure, self-interest and social ethics, and much more.

A thought-provoking if contrasting case is raised by Paulo da Silva Quadros in his exploration of the rise of hostility towards Brazilian health workers from early in the pandemic. Pointing to the deliberate encouragement of violence by anti-virus deniers linked to Brazil’s President Bolsonaro, he makes a strong argument for the advancement of special protection for care workers. While this moving piece at first seemed to identify Brazil as an exceptional case, the increase in opposition movements in Europe, North America and elsewhere suggests that there is much to be learned from the Brazilian case.

Ito Peng and Jiweon Jun’s study focuses on another form of care – childcare. Based on international survey research concerning the impact of the pandemic on families with small children, they show how social policies and labour market segmentation in South Korea have made women’s jobs increasingly more vulnerable and less well paid, while ensuring that grandparents are less available. Their rich data shows that women, as mothers, bore the brunt of the lockdown in the early stages of the pandemic.

A unique and valuable perspective on the pandemic is provided by Jingxue Zhang, Minhui Yang and Zhen Sui in their contribution on what they identify as ‘virtual care’ during the initial COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan, China. They explore how, as Wuhan was shut down and physically isolated, friends and family from around the world kept in touch using internet resources, providing a form of virtual care. In a short time this quickly grew to exchanging information, conducting counselling, organising community-based mutual aid and even producing petitions. Rather than being completely cut off from contact, the virtual care networks provided Wuhan citizens with access to available information from abroad, extending even to such intimate forms of help as organising voluntary groups to help pregnant women, and locating necessary menstrual supplies.

Clearly the pandemic is not yet over. Vaccination, while a vital tool, has not yet proven to be the silver bullet that ends the plague. Indeed, despite a ferocious and global political hunger for an ‘exit strategy’, such a pathway remains elusive, the epidemiological factors increasingly complicated by the political conflicts that have grown in the pandemic’s shadow.

Any sense of a transformation in care also remains far from complete. The impact of the pandemic on care has undoubtedly been profound, just as it has also been complex and often contradictory. How care has changed and how it will be understood, valued and practised as a result of the experience remains far from settled. The new voices that have emerged in the special issue do not provide the final destination. But like all exciting new research, they do offer a fresh starting place from which to survey the journey ahead.

Michael Fine is Honorary Professor in the Department of Sociology at Macquarie University, Sydney. Joan Tronto is Professor of Political Science at the University of Minnesota. They are the editors of the special issue of the International Journal of Care and Caring, ‘Care, caring, and the global COVID-19 pandemic‘.

 

IJCC coverYou can find out more about the special issue of the International Journal of Care and Caring, ‘Care, caring, and the global COVID-19 pandemic’, here.

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Image credit: Dan Dennis on Unsplash