“One of the central tasks for people interested in care is to change the overall public value associated with care. When our public values and priorities reflect the role that care actually plays in our lives, our world will be organized quite differently” – Joan Tronto.
A few years ago, I was lucky to attend a lecture at Dalhousie University’s Schulich School of Law where two powerful female speakers were present, senator Kim Pate, and political science professor Joan Tronto. Senator Pate was there to discuss the treatment of aboriginal women in penitentiaries. Pate advocates for the humane treatment of prisoners because she believes in a “different kind of society that better supports the most vulnerable among us”. Dr. Gabor Mate writes that “what we have in prisons are the most traumatized people in our society”. Arguably, prisoners represent those who have been cared for the least in this world, many of them modelling behaviors reflected to them by parents or loved ones who lacked the ability to act in caring ways. We see this in their telling of childhood stories that describe how abuse, neglect, and violence, was shown to them by their caregivers (see Fritzi Horstman’s brilliant initiative to create the Compassion Prison Project). A lack of societal care also contributes to the prisoners experience, as is reflected in our reshaping of criminal behaviour through exposure to further trauma in jail, it is shown by our collective inability to see rehabilitation as far superior to punishment, and lastly, it is shown again in our traditional lack of sympathy towards the health plights of inmates, an issue that was raised when prisoners were controversially prioritized early to have their COVID vaccines.
Tronto has eloquently argued (for many years) that “care” should be the primary focus of our lives, because it involves almost everything we do. She says that “all human beings require care, all the time”. If we stop to consider this, it is mostly true that from birth until death we always need some form of help from others in order to survive. Tronto believes that caring acts are the central force behind how we build our world and maintain it, because caring for others is a central part of everyday life. However, despite the gratification and love we attain from acting out care, we still treat this practice as menial, lowly, and unnecessary, compared to more intellectual or commercial endeavors. Tronto makes this point clear when she says, “caring work is reserved for the least socially appreciated”. This is a powerful part of her reasoning behind why she argues that care has been neglected in society. We often contract our care work out to marginalized individuals (e.g., immigrants become our janitors or nannies) because we do not believe this type of labor is inherently valuable, despite the fact that ‘care work’ represents the majority of what “needs” to be done in this world. Physicians have moved away from doing the caring work that is less pleasant, whereas nurses spend most of their time interacting directly with the patient and family, moving them, feeding them, and helping them go to the bathroom. This is not to undermine the integral role of the physician who provides endless acts of care alongside the team, this example simply draws our attention to the ways in which we collectively perceive the value of different caring acts. Thus, those who are more privileged can afford (both figuratively and literally) to neglect certain caring obligations.
As we further unpack different perceptions of care, it is clear that the public’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic globally is no exception. If we look at the ways in which large social gatherings continue to be held, and the voices of anti-maskers ring out, such actions speak to an utter and blatant disregard for vulnerable individuals. Fellow OpenThinker Rachel McLay reminds us that those who break the rules set out by our province to curtail COVID-19 certainly do not represent the majority of our population’s actions, and therefore do not summarize our overall “collective ethic” as portrayed by Dr. Strang. However, the uncaring actions of the few literally plague the many. I write this on the evening of Nova Scotia’s highest recorded cases to date, followed by our highest admissions to the intensive care unit (ICU) so far. It is important to self-reflect upon whether we have become estranged from the knowledge of what it is like to practice caring acts outside of our own families and beyond our own needs. Like the prisoners who have been socially and emotionally abused which may have led them to act out in destructive ways, I want to ask: what is driving the lack of care from individuals who believe they can party during a pandemic?
As Tronto argues, we need to realize that we are both receivers and givers of care. The young student who might fail to see their naive actions as detrimental to others during a global pandemic will surely need to benefit from the caring work of healthcare providers. The question that will enter the minds of providers will also certainly be “why did this individual not care about my role in all of this?” I myself wonder: do we sometimes fail to acknowledge or recognize when care is needed by others? I argue that the root of this phenomenon (i.e., publicly neglecting care) is a cornerstone of what helps to generate a lack of awareness of how healthcare providers suffered prior to the pandemic and is contributing largely to why some individuals believe their actions during COVID do not affect others as greatly as they do. Acting from a disposition of “care” is usually the more difficult choice, it is often easier to look away, or to make decisions that do not consider the larger social good. Now that COVID-19 has drawn our attention to many of these issues we are seeing an overarching desire to protect others and to maintain the collective wellbeing, but not everyone is on board. We must take responsibility for this crisis globally and embrace the concept that caring for your fellow society members is an extension of caring for yourself. When you hurt someone else, this also hurts you. When you begin to see the needs of ‘the other’ as inextricably linked to your own wellbeing you will always know what needs to be done.
Those who fail to see their actions as directly related to their own wellbeing (as societal harms will circle back to the individual) suffer from a broader and more hegemonic form of neglect, that is, a sense of not being responsible. Providers are publicly hailed as heroes but suffer internally in silence wondering quietly why anyone would put their health and families at risk. I want to impress upon us the profound effect of caring for the people we love in this world beyond our own personal circles. Prisons are a very extreme example of what happens when we fail to properly care for people, and daycares are a great example of how much care we are capable of inserting into a day. If we forget to see public needs as private issues, we fail to see how neglecting these problems will lead to disturbances in our collective wellbeing, which is reflected by our societal actions. It is not a lack of public knowledge that allows people to break the guidelines for protecting everyone during the pandemic, because the information is being spread loudly, instead, it is a lack of care. Those who feel privileged enough to escape both the limits of COVID restrictions and the detrimental health effects that come with being exposed, have failed to take the needs of the vulnerable into due consideration. Caring for the public is a group effort that requires daily acknowledgment, because like Tronto says, care involves everything we do.