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  • Care and caring:(by) force or (by) fiction
  • Beth Vale (bio)

The global spread of Covid-19 has been accompanied by a grand-scale 'call to care.'

Each of us has been asked to care about the risks and costs of the pandemic; to care for those in our homes, particularly children unable to attend school; and to take care by following public health precautions. Meanwhile, global health policy, domestic regulation, international trade, and the everyday practices of households and businesses have been reconfigured, all, purportedly, in the interests of care. The burden of care has fallen particularly on those workers recently classed as 'essential:' who sustain our towns and cities, feed and protect us, offer medical and palliative services to the sick, and, yes, bury the dead.

Paying attention to care–including what is, and is not, done in its name–can uncover truths about the ways that social orders assign importance. If we want to learn about what matters to a social order, a good place to start is by asking:

Who cares? (ie How are caregiving responsibilities allocated?);

About what? (ie What constitutes care?);

And why? (ie Which moral rubrics are informing how care givers, care recipients, and care provision is defined?)

Care, rather than being a benign or pastoral question, is a political battleground. It is in the terrain of care that we ultimately decide what matters to us, and what will matter to us, in the months and years to come.

In this contribution, I explore how the South African government has organised, distributed, and articulated care in a time of Covid-19, revealing the multiple, often ill-fitting, normative frameworks that undergird its response. Some aspects of this response have seen care mobilised in ways that, paradoxically, de-centre both caregivers and ordinary people; while [End Page 11] others have presented noticeable ruptures with the status quo, inviting us to re-imagine a more caring way of being.

Through the medium of fiction; I use the final section of the paper to articulate what a genuinely care-centred social order might look like. Writing from, and not simply about, a new public orientation towards care, serves to remind us that existing social formations, rather than being inevitable, are in fact wholly contingent. Understanding this, is indispensable to a 'politics of the possible.'

Who cares?

If Covid-19 has entailed a 'call to care,' one of the first questions for governments to answer is: 'What constitutes care in this moment and who should provide it?'

In crafting its Covid-19 response, the South African government has (both implicitly and explicitly) offered a range of answers. I will work through what I consider the most salient of these 'answers,' surfacing the ideologies and assumptions that inform them.

My analysis will also signal continuities and ruptures with the pre-Covid era, the so-called 'old normal'. The Covid-19 response has smoked out many long-standing 'abnormalities' in our approach to care. Where we have been let down, this is, for many, not anything new. But, by denaturalising that which had become naturalised, the pandemic also presents what Arundhati Roy (2020) famously dubbed 'a portal: a gateway between one world and the next'.

'The People' should care

Among the most conspicuous responses to the question of 'who should provide care' in the time of Covid-19 is: 'the public,' in the form of individuals, families, and 'communities'.

Covid-19 public health messaging has pivoted on prevention through self-regulation. Populations have been encouraged to curb infections by washing hands, wearing masks, sanitising, and maintaining 'social distance'. Over the course of 2020, the South African government has called upon individuals, homes, and neighbourhoods to take up the mantle of care by observing these public health precautions, educating themselves, and shouldering the 'sacrifices' that national lockdown has entailed.

Much of this has been rationalised in the language of 'personal [End Page 12] responsibility'–what health sociologists would term 'responsibilisation' or 'responsibilised citizenship' (Beckmann 2013, Colvin et al 2010). Only four days into South Africa's lockdown, the language of responsibility was in high gear. In one of his increasingly-commonplace addresses to the nation, the president commended the public...


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pp. 11-23
Launched on MUSE
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