Recent concerns about equity amid vaccine shortages in California and other states should prompt more discussion of how the pandemic has exacerbated inequities that existed before particularly along lines of gender and class. More specifically, it is high time that we took a hard look at the structural inequities that have historically shaped social reproduction —i.e., caregiving and the women disproportionately charged with overseeing it— and insist on something better.
For much of the 20th century, as we’re told by historians and sociologists, women in the global North were perceived as “buffers” for the household, preventing the woes of society from creeping into the space of the family. Their counterparts in the global South filled in for hollowed-out welfare states during the era of structural adjustment programs (SAPs) as debt repayment programs imposed by entities like the World Bank translated to society-wide erosion of basic health and social services. Scholars later coined the concept of “invisible adjustments” to describe the buffering labors of these Third World women.
Invisible adjustments and other forms of buffering have characterized much of women’s experiences amid inadequate government responses to the pandemic. Akin to the microscopic virus that we’re struggling to contain, the caring labors performed by women with young children in the home remain mostly invisible, yet with tremendous economic and health costs.
Consider the number of women who have departed the workforce for reasons of childcare, record spikes in domestic and gender-based violence, and women’s declining mental health as they endlessly worry about feeding the family, paying for rent and utilities, and caring for the physical and emotional wellbeing of children. My own research has documented the ways that low-income, immigrant women attempt to shield others in their households from a range of external stressors, including food insecurity. As this stress gets internalized, they increasingly report struggles with obesity, hypertension, and type 2 diabetes. (Notably, these are among the most important predisposing conditions for severe cases, and death from Covid-19).
Indeed, the “women as buffer” script seems more entrenched than ever.
And the buffer goes both ways. What happens in the home, stays in the home. Marital woes? Save it for the therapist (if you can afford one). Financial problems? Money talk is taboo. A child who is struggling to cope? Get ready to be labeled a bad parent or become the target of other’s pity. In short, we’re increasingly isolated from others and resources vital to our survival.
Yet, as observed by Native feminist scholar Mishuana Goeman, this isolation is no accident. It was and always has been central to the making of a settler, capitalist society. Our spatial and social connections to one another are severed as we are coerced into buying that which is necessary for our survival rather than finding support through relations of reciprocity and mutual aid.
For me, the degree of buffering imposed by the pandemic represents both a personal and structural concern. As I struggle to manage my career alongside the demands of caring for two young children and a spouse who is immunocompromised due to a chronic illness, I am the buffer and “essential worker” for our household. I’m also skeptical of temporary fixes such as sabbaticals, subsidies, and childcare reimbursements, knowing of how individual gains for the social and economic mobility of women like me (i.e., cis-, white, middle-class) over the past few decades have often implied additional burdens for Black, Brown, and Native women. We must acknowledge and be wary of how strides towards “women’s liberation” dovetail with racism, xenophobia, homo/transphobia, and the hardening of a white supremacist society.
Rather than individual-focused measures, we need collective action that rejects the notion of women as buffers and refuses any project in which they are weaponized in carrying out the state’s dirty work of denying people of their basic needs and padding the pockets of billionaires.
This crisis of care within families —and the eroding moral fortitude of those performing it— deserves greater scrutiny and concern beyond the COVID-19 pandemic. Whatever government spending for pandemic relief and recovery manifests must not perpetuate deeply entrenched inequalities around caregiving or expect that women and marginalized others will perform invisible adjustments to clear society of its debts.
What would happen if we collectively removed our bodies from the “buffer zone?” Would we rip out the last bits of a threadbare safety net and expose those we care for to inconceivable harm? Or might we hope for and witness the strengthening of something other than women as buffers to demand equitable wellbeing for all?
Megan A. Carney is a medical and sociocultural anthropologist with specializations in transnational migration and the politics of care. She is the author of two books, Island of Hope: Migration and Solidarity in the Mediterranean and The Unending Hunger: Tracing Women and Food Insecurity Across Borders. Follow her on Twitter @megan_a_carney.