What does care mean in a Covid-19 pandemic context? Why does care fail and gender-based violence becomes even more resilient in itself, despite being conceptualised as a "pandemic within a pandemic" in a context of intensifying sexism, culturalist stereotypes and xenophobia, not to mention social policing and the intensive securitization of borders and mobility?
The context of multiple crises
From its outset, the prevailing public reactions to the Covid-19 pandemic in the media and by the governments all over the world, called for individual responsibility and social distancing, dubbed as “care for the self and care for the others.” With an emphasis on the ability of the body to produce (herd/personal) immunity or surrender to the disease, care was translated into a measurable phenomenon connected to people’s individual adherence to social-distancing orders so as to 'protect' the self and society. Indeed, care was conceptualized according to a neoliberal logic of governmentality, characterized by faith in positivist scientific guidelines and justified by daily statistics of infections and deaths, while the healthcare system failed (and continues to fail) to meet the pandemic’s exigencies.
In the case of Greece, Covid-19 arrived in a country already struggling with austerity since 2010 and with the management of migration since 2015, both of which have been dubbed crises. This discourse, which ignores long-entrenched, structural and biopolitical causes of dispossession, precariousness and debility, was later reiterated in the name of a pandemic-crisis. Rather than deployed to re-evaluate what might constitute a “good life” and reflect on the rise of sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, fascism and patriarchy, as many authors have now argued, the “crisis” discourse produces politics of fear, suffering and despair. Furthermore, it (re)legitimizes (neo)liberal politics in the realms of employment, social care and relationality, and creates new forms of precarious lives, while emphasizing individualism, personal responsibility and people's heroic acts to survive such a 'crisis'. Overall, it tests people's resilience in a context of intensifying sexism, culturalist stereotypes and xenophobia, not to mention social policing, and the intensive securitization of borders and mobility.
#We Stay Home, We Come out Winners
What has been crucial regarding this "health crisis" case, though, is the fact that it appeared as a virus that affects "us" all equally, worldwide. Let's take, as an example, the video campaign commissioned by the Ministry of Political Protection: "We stay home, we come out winners." The representation of the virus as an invisible enemy at war with the nation endorsed a masculinist, militaristic and xenophobic logic, capable of legitimizing the policing of movement and human relations, and the further harshening of employment regimes. Moreover, this campaign evokes fantasies of sustainable heteronormative family structures (concealing their toxicity), of care provisions provided despite the threat of disaster, and of comfort zones deriving from the nation's ability to remain intact and resilient; these fantasies obscure a crucial reality: the actual reality of homes as spaces haunted by violence and as spaces of “stuckedness” (Hage 2009) for many.
In the case of Greece, again, gender-based violence rose by 25 percent during the first national lockdown – a statistic that captures only the more severe cases, and of courses excludes women unable to step forward (Vougiouka and Liapi 2020:6). It also excludes the recording of other forms of violence (economic, psychological, emotional, etc.) and fails to address violence induced by the socio-legal structures ostensibly providing care and protection – like the police, hospitals or the judicial system, which further enhance victimhood and vulnerability. At the same time, such statistics exclude categories of people who a) do not have homes (especially migrants and refugees), or b) do not fit the sociocultural profile of those able to benefit from resources available to protect people exposed to gender-based violence because of limited access to care structures or other existing inequalities (of class, race, ethnicity, sexuality, ability, age, etc.). Moreover, it fails to address the gendered experiences of care agents themselves, forced by the pandemic to turn their homes into places of work while already suffering from 'burn out'.
Gender-based violence remains resilient: why?
The realization that “[f]or many women and children, the home is not a safe place” (GREVIO 2020; see also UN Women 2020, WHO 2020) turned into an urgent call for action against the gendered effects of quarantining and social distancing by international organisations (UN Women, UNICEF, WHO, etc.), NGOs and feminist collectives (European Network of Migrant Women, European Women’s Lobby, WAVE, Cross Border Feminists, etc.), and was thus dubbed a "pandemic within a pandemic". However, gender-based violence has a long history and it did not appear with the pandemic. Numerous statistics present it as one of the most significant contemporary social and political issue that needs to be addressed. There are so many (inter)national campaigns and state-funded projects aiming to battle against it. Despite the vast public plea in the social media, civil society initiatives and state organised campaigns to battle against it, "break the silence" and "end it", though, it seems to remain resilient. Why?
- First, despite the presumption that this virus does not discriminate among its victims, the critical notion of “white care” coined by Cotten Seiler (2020) calls attention to the ways by which care, as an institutional discourse, relates to the reproduction of inequalities and to the repetition of structural and symbolic violence. On the one hand, apparatuses of care (like infrastructure, institutions, and agents in the public and NGO sectors) depend on a sense of individual worth, and through the production of such self-value people demand restorative aid by the state, making the state appear as empathetic by default; thus, it is the needs and circumstances of society’s privileged that need to be restored, Seiler reminds us. On the other hand, providing care to subaltern populations in ways that ignore the structural, political and affective causes of their marginalization, makes them appear as “patients of the state” (Auyero 2012) and reproduces gender-based and other hierarchies and injustices in the name of restorative measures.
- Second, as Sarah Bracke's analysis of resilience demonstrates: "resilience is the terrain of restoration par excellence" (2016:59). In the name of care, resilience turns into a contemporary technology of intensified securitisation so as to "protect/defend" the self/society to help them remain "unshakable, untouchable, or sheltered" (2016:56), while denying vulnerability, which is deemed shameful and attached to dependency, fragility and need (2016:59). If being exposed to violence intensifies a person's vulnerability, how can one speak about this in a context that denies it?
- Third, asking people to demonstrate resilience, endure crises and come out as "winners" means that this message occludes the possibility to understand violence (against women) as a phenomenon rooted in society and regulated by the reiteration of embedded norms, or most importantly, as something resilient in itself despite pandemics and/or other crises.
- Fourth, it also occludes the possibility to think of what Judith Butler, Zeynep Gambetti and Leticia Sabsay dubbed "vulnerability as/in resistance" (2016) or, as Bracke argues (2016): it occludes the possibility to ask what "resistant against resilience" might entail, or what a feminist experience of resilience might mean. Ultimately, this disguises the importance of alternative networks of supportive care, ad hoc aid communities and voluntary support groups, both in physical (e.g. neighbourhoods) and virtual (e.g. social media) spaces, which play a crucial role in foregrounding democratic visions of solidarity, caring and (self)education during the pandemic, as they did before that, and as they continue to do.
To conclude, one needs to pay special attention to the (reiteration of the) fantasy of "white care" and the social effects that the plea for resilience produces when populations are guided by governments to adapt to unexpected change and uncertainty at times of crises, and when individuals are expected to show “responsibility, adaptability and preparedness” (Joseph 2013:40) so as to come out as "winners" of the nation and of the world. In such context gender-based violence will always remain resilient and won't just end.