India’s Socialization of Care Work and Coronavirus: Not Just a ‘Women’s Issue’

Apr 14, 2020

Assumption Economics Professor breaks down why a lockdown won’t make up for the country’s investment in profit over people 

Smriti Rao, Ph.D., professor of economics and global studies, published an essay with the International Development Economics Associates (IDEA), an international network of economists engaged in the discussion, teaching, research, and critical analysis of economic development.  In her article, Prof Rao proposes that while demands for the “socialization of care work” are often associated with women, in the days of the coronavirus pandemic, it is most certainly not just a women’s issue. 

According to Prof. Rao, human survival depends on access to essentials such as safe space, clean water, food, and basic healthcare. Unfortunately, this is not a public infrastructure that India has prioritized, favoring profit-making entities over those that subsidize human survival. “Our current crisis is revealing the true costs of this choice,” writes Prof. Rao. 

She explains that in India, “it is largely left to households and families to mobilize and allocate the labor and resources required to achieve human survival and well-being,” This encompasses biological reproduction as well as the physical and emotional care of children, elderly and other adults in the family. While this work is often performed by family members or underpaid domestic employees, according to Prof. Rao, the “socialization of care work,” can redistribute the burden away from the household-family and toward other institutions such as the state or corporations. 

According to Prof. Rao, in India, the demand for socialization of care work is often characterized as a women’s issue, as the work is often performed by women and girls. “Studies have shown quite clearly the economic, mental and physical burdens for women, particularly the most marginalized women, in societies that refuse to subsidize and redistribute this labor,” she writes, adding that it creates a “double burden” as this work is undervalued and usually unpaid. Prof. Rao writes that the failure to develop a public infrastructure and redistribute social reproduction is “making it significantly harder to control both the health and economic effects of the coronavirus.”

Because there is a lack of infrastructure that supports those who prioritize human survival, India’s unprecedented lockdown might not prevent the spread of coronavirus. For example, in other countries, citizens are able to comply with physical and social distancing because they are able to access essentials such as food, water, and sanitation without leaving home. In India, those living in urban slums, migrant camps, and rural areas lack access to housing, food, water, and healthcare, forcing them to leave their homes. The lockdown has also cut citizens off from sources of income, and while many people don’t have savings, there is immense pressure for daily wage workers to return to work. 

Prof. Rao adds that the “almost complete privatization of social reproduction in India has also left its legacy in the large-scale malnourishment that makes our population uniquely vulnerable to the coronavirus. It is also one of factors behind the massive increase in temporary, precarious migration this century.” While millions of Indians were forced to move for work and to earn an income, their access to water, schools or sanitation became more limited, and they will be forced to return home when the income is gone. Prof. Rao writes that this is evidence that the government is more willing to subsidize profit making than investing in the infrastructure of social reproduction that will save its peoples’ lives.

Read Prof. Rao’s full article, Lessons from the Coronavirus: The socialization of care work is not ‘just’ a women’s issue.