COVID-19: A call to governments and donors to put care at the heart of the recovery

Published: April 12, 2021

The coronavirus pandemic has massively exacerbated inequalities around the world, widening the gap between rich and poor, and between women and men. We know that women and girls, and those who are racially and ethnically marginalized, are bearing the brunt of the COVID-19 crisis: they are more likely to be pushed into poverty, more likely to go hungry, and are very much enduring an explosion in unpaid care work. Care work keeps our economies, businesses and societies moving — much of it done for free, or is underpaid and precarious, keeping women trapped in poverty.

Even before the pandemic hit, women in rural and low-income countries were spending up to 14 hours a day on unpaid care work. In 2019, Oxfam estimated that unpaid care work alone was contributing at least $10.8 trillion a year to the global economy — three times the size of the global tech industry! In Asia and the Pacific, women were spending 4.1 times more than men on unpaid care work, while in Latin America and the Caribbean, women have been dedicating double the time of men doing care work, with children and adolescents of school age dedicating 4 hours a day to care work.

The pandemic has only made the load heavier. In a recent set of surveys conducted by Oxfam and our partners to assess the impact of the pandemic on care work across different regions, around half (44%–55%) of women surveyed reported that they are now spending even more time on unpaid care and domestic work as a result of COVID-19 and containment measures. This is largely a result of schools being closed, but also because lockdowns and social distancing have meant more time at home, cooking and cleaning, caring for sick family members, and more. At the same time, millions of women in the formal and informal sector have lost their jobs during the pandemic or have been forced to leave jobs, reduce hours or take unpaid leave to manage additional care responsibilities. These conditions have real consequences for the health, economic security and wellbeing of women and their families: across the countries surveyed, almost half (43%) of women respondents said they were feeling more anxious, depressed, overworked, isolated or physically ill because of their increased unpaid care and domestic workload during the pandemic.

The COVID-19 era has poured daylight onto how care work is the biggest — and hidden — engine that keeps our global economies, businesses and societies moving. Yet it has been systematically undervalued and invisibilized in economic thinking, in public policies, and priorities. The result? Increased work insecurity for women, likelihood of domestic and sexual violence, lost opportunities for women and girls including school drop-outs, decreased likelihood to enter into paid jobs, and, ultimately, deeper poverty, gender and economic inequality. The fight against these inequalities must be at the heart of economic rescue and recovery efforts and it will be critical to ensure that the care economy is brought to the center of the COVID-19 recovery stimulus.

Over the last few months, we have been working to further consider the role of International Financial Institutions (IFIs) in particular, their potential role to bring care work to the forefront of a recovery that meaningfully aims to address systemic inequalities. Our conversations have been guided by the International Labor Organization’s 5R framework of Recognizing, Reducing and Redistributing unpaid care work; Rewarding by providing more and decent work for care workers, and Representation, including social dialogue and collective bargaining for care workers.

The role of the IFIs, especially the World Bank Group, in the pandemic response and recovery phase is significant given the high volume of committed investments across relevant sectors, especially in low-income countries. Despite their ongoing gender strategies and commitments to gender equality goals, as it stands, development finance architecture continues to fundamentally lack a care perspective. As a result, women’s unpaid, underpaid and paid care work remains largely invisible in IFI operations, and in the public policies and national budget priorities that they impact. The matter of childcare specifically has been given increasing attention, though it has been through the lens of the private sector — important, but nowhere near sufficient to ensure universality, address those in the informal economy, or capture the multiple dimensions of care work.

In an effort to move this agenda forward more deliberately, together with allies, and in consultation with care workers and their unions, Oxfam has begun co-creating a set of forthcoming tools that we hope can guide development practitioners and IFIs, starting with the World Bank, to integrate a care-responsive framework into their ways of working at various levels. These include:

1. ‘Care principles’ that serve as guiding principles for the World Bank to contribute towards addressing women’s disproportionate unpaid and underpaid care work. The principles are guided by the ILO’s 5R framework and emanate from care-related provisions endorsed through various human right mandates, conventions and international labor standards. These principles articulate how the principles can be applied to different aspects of the Bank’s work from country partnership frameworks, to project selection, to project design to take some examples.

2. A ‘Care Responsive Barometer’ with guiding questions to help assess and implement the care principles, and which also provides a scoring matrix to alert if more progress is needed/possible to integrate consideration of unpaid and underpaid care work. This barometer is intended to support World Bank teams as well as independent evaluators or stakeholders to assess care responsiveness in World Bank operations.

So far, and to help us better refine this tool, we have tested the barometer against six World Bank COVID-19 operations in Asia — two in development policy financing and four in investment project financing in the Philippines and Bangladesh. The findings across all sample projects indicate that only one project meets what we’d consider minimum standards against the care-responsive barometer, demonstrating significant opportunities to further integrate a care-responsive approach across sectors. We will be releasing the tools and case studies referenced above in the coming months and hope that they can be useful for the Bank, and other stakeholders.

Since the policy commitments made around the 17th replenishment of the Bank’s fund for the poorest, the International Development Association (IDA17), gender has been a key pillar of the Bank’s IDA policy agenda across replenishment cycles. Yet, IDA commitments have typically included almost no mention of care work, or how marginalized women are particularly impacted by unpaid and underpaid care work. With the ‘global care crisis’ we face today, as donors and the Bank enter discussions around IDA20, it is imperative to increase attention to addressing unpaid, underpaid and paid care work in its priorities. Some examples of what this could look like include supporting governments to extend care-supporting infrastructure to the poorest households (especially domestic water and electricity supply), increasing access to childcare facilities and early childhood education for the poorest households, providing technical assistance to governments to strengthen gender budgeting, and importantly, bringing women and care workers’ voices into Bank operations.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed our collective frailty and the inability of our deeply unequal economy to work for all. It has also shown us the vital importance of government and multilateral action to protect our health and livelihoods. The care economy is one we can no longer hide, ignore, and undervalue. Transformative policies and thinking are needed now. We can’t go back to where we were before.