Home in a Time of Covid

Ambreena Manji argues that we need a better understanding of home, labour and inequality in the pandemic and that feminist thought is central to a just future. Focusing on the Global South, she argues that women have borne the brunt of the violence directed towards the homes of working people.

By Ambreena Manji

One of the contradictions of the past few weeks is that as we have become isolated within our own borders, neighbourhoods and homes, we have also become joined around the globe in the incantation of new words: social distancing, lockdown, quarantine, curfew, shielding. To this list of what, after the Welsh Marxist theorist Raymond Williams, we might call our Covid keywords, we must also insist on adding evictions, demolitions, forced internal migrations, all of which have unfolded before our eyes in the first pandemic to occur in an age of social media.

At a recent webinar on Africa and the Pandemic, ROAPE’s Heike Becker described African governments as being more intent on flattening houses than on flattening the curve. I was provoked by this to revisit the literature on domicide, a word used to describe the deliberate destruction of home and the suffering of those who dwell in them. In this pandemic, there has been an under-theorisation of the meaning of home. Instrumentally, instructions to stay at home were not made on the basis of careful knowledge of how homes function as what Kathleen Lynch, John Baker and Maureen Lyons have described as enclosed places or political economies.

Feminists have long argued that affective relations and the conditions under which reproductive labour is provided are neglected and under-researched. This failure risks making the attempt to prevent the spread of  Covid-19 not just instrumentally unworkable but also unjust. As Tshepo Mdlingozi pointed out when he wrote in relation to South Africa that ‘spatial colonialism makes it impossible and inhumane to enforce a lockdown in shack settlements.’ Similarly,  OluTimehin Adegbeye has written that the World Health Organization is ‘promoting social distancing as an essential response to this pandemic, forgetting that there are many parts of the world where this single solution is contextually inadequate or even dangerous.’

Covid has also thrown up critical existential questions about what we talk about when we talk about home. David Ndii has written that the Kenya authorities have an assumption that everyone has a true, rural home. This has meant that working people and the urban poor are treated as temporarily in the city and having no rights to it, an assumption with deep colonial roots. In India, the authorities announced a lockdown which Arundhati Roy has described as  ‘towns and megacities…extrud[ing] their working-class citizens — their migrant workers — like so much unwanted accrual’ (in contrast, India’s repatriation by air of its overseas citizens has been meticulously organised).

When the stay home orders were made, little thought was given to what it means to ask poor families to educate children from home in overcrowded conditions at a time when care work is itself risky, disproportionately exposing women to greater risks of the disease. Our failure to imagine the homes of others was all the more striking because for those with access to technology, we have are able to look into the homes of others for the first time. Virtual meetings challenge the notion of home as enclosed, private spaces.

Similarly, some of us have spoken frankly and sometimes for the first time about our family commitments and how our jobs are built on an unencumbered male breadwinner model now thrown into disarray. The instruction by our employers to ‘work from home’ was striking: what do we imagine has been going on in homes other than work? The pandemic has made responsibilities for care work more visible at the same time as increasing its quantity as women try to do their jobs whilst simultaneously looking after those in their home. The under-theorisation of what takes place in the home was evident in other ways, from the neglect of a shadow pandemic of domestic violence to the lack of awareness of the ways of life of multigenerational homes where shielding the elderly is not practicable or where older people have long established roles in relation to care, quarantine and the dying.

The pandemic should compel us to think more clearly about home as a political economy. It has made visible and at the same time put under additional strain the work of social reproduction, that is the socially necessary labour expended to provide food, clothing, and shelter for consumption. That little value is attached to this caregiving is not natural but the outcome of political choices. Caregiving and emotional labour are unequally distributed. They fall disproportionately on women and most of all on minority women, the poorly paid and the precarious. They subordinate women in society. Women have of course struggled against that subordination. This is for instance richly evoked in Luise White’s study of early colonial Nairobi, entitled The Comforts of Home, which showed how women provided care labour for men in return for pay ‘in imitation of marriage’ and then went on to use the proceeds of that labour to become independent property owners in a growing city: in the words of one woman: ‘I built this house on my back’.

The gulf between the homes of the rich and the poor in the cities of the global south has meant that whilst many cocoon at home in safety, with adequate food and access to plentiful resources, (purchases of luxury cars in Kenya has shot up since the beginning of the pandemic: the car too functions as enclosed space), in other parts of the city, women are caring for people without pay, taking care of loved ones, ‘provisioning supplies, and finding ways to offset the enormous economic and social burdens of this time’. At the same time women have borne the brunt of the violence directed towards the homes of working people. The pandemic has confirmed what Patrick McAuslan described as the role of the bulldozer  as ‘the principal tool of planning’. Evictions have taken place in defiance of court orders. The militarisation of cities such as Nairobi and Johannesburg has led to an increase in rape and sexual violence. Women are safe neither from intimate partners nor from strangers in the form of police prowling the streets during curfews.

Central to a just response to Covid must be the work of reimagining what is needed to sustain a just home. Foremost amongst these is an economy that recognises, redistributes and compensates the labour that is essential to sustaining us. A better understanding of the labour needed to reproduce a home and ensure its survival during a pandemic must be carried forward into the future to ensure that that home thrives. A starting point is to recognise the differential impact on women of violence, repression, precarity, sickness and domicide in a time of Covid.

Recovery should not mean a return to normal but should entail thinking about the ways in which the normal of others has been invisible to us, as Hannah Cross and Leo Zeilig remind us by asking: ‘Is not the experience of life with the Covid-19 outbreak, now being felt for the first time in many generations in the Global North, the common experience of life and death in the South?’ The Hawai’i state commission on the status of women, presenting its proposals for a feminist economic recovery from Covid-19, argues that we must speak ‘not only about response and recovery, but also of repair and revival: repair of historic harms and intergenerational trauma playing out as male domination, gender-based violence, economic insecurity, poor health and mass incarceration.’

What might a just home in a reparatory future look like?

Ambreena Manji is Professor of Land Law and Development at Cardiff School of Law and Politics. She is working on a book on care labour in African social history.

Featured Photograph: Lyla Latif, sketch from an original painting (artist unknown).


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