If the coronavirus pandemic has taught us one thing, it is to appreciate the true value of all the dedicated women nurses and carers, who are bearing the brunt of the viral attack, in a courageous attempt to save lives and protect those in need. These women do this every day, regardless of whether there is a pandemic or not. But in these extraordinary times, we notice them and, more importantly for the future, we value them. Clapping is nice, paying them a decent wage from now on, would be even nicer.
Care goes beyond medical treatment, to encompass the psychological and emotional needs of the patient. The nurses and carers don’t only take care of the patients they see, but care about them. The emotions they demonstrate are just as important as the care they provide.
The fact that most nurses and carers are women, and are so badly paid for the work they do, only underscores the hard fight to obtain equal rights and recognition, that feminism still has on its hands. But you don’t even have to be a feminist, to see that these women are being exploited.
I have often asked myself why there aren’t more male nurses and carers. For psychologist Carol Gilligan, women have developed the capacity to care, by a system that assigns them from birth to the well-being of others. They see a world of care and protection, a life lived with others whom, “you may love as much or even more than you love yourself.” (1)
It’s a system we must get out of. We must recognise that men can also care, but that this capacity is, more often than not, occulted by the artificially created need to perform. Caring about others, sometimes at your own expense, is just not cool for a man. So, who better to look after us, than women? They don’t have to be cool, and certainly don’t need the money, since men are there to help them. Yep, if only…
The value attributed to care […] is a feminine one, it expresses a greater moral sensibility of women which is due to the possibility of maternal love. From motherhood to mothering, the consequence is good. Only, women are then circumscribed in a profile which freezes them, characterises them and excludes all the women who do not fit the profile. Defending feminine values in this way cannot be done without reaffirming the heterosexual matrix. (2)
Silly me. And there was I thinking that moral values were universal, transcending any notion of what it is to be a man and a woman, to encompass the whole of humanity. Maybe women do have an innate aptitude to feel compassion and a talent for caring. If so, let them be rewarded for their talents, and let them teach men like me to be equally compassionate and good at caring.
The challenge is to shift the boundaries of morality by bringing in the discordant voices of women. (2)
But the unjust treatment of nurses and carers goes well beyond the murky waters of our patriarchal societies. It also reflects a society that wants to live in complete freedom whilst, at the same time, negating its total dependence on health care provided by others. It is only when a personal tragedy strikes – illness, death of a loved one, a pandemic – that we come to realise the bond we have with others and our total reliance on their capacity to provide care. Our vital functions depend on those who look after us.
We must decide, once and for all, whether we all want a humane health service in our democracies. Populations are becoming older and, as the present pandemic sadly shows, we are always at the mercy of a sanitary catastrophe. Massive investment, putting aside the notion of all-out profit and replacing it with compassion and respect, are prerequisites for a health service that is efficient whilst, at the same time, remaining humane. We should start by respecting and rewarding the thousands of women who work in the hospitals, looking after those who are the most vulnerable. Only too often, nurses are too tired, or pushed for time, to want to develop an emotional bond with their patients.
The way that many of the elderly have been treated during the COVID-19 pandemic, underscores the complexity and urgency of the problem. Many have died alone, without the psychological and moral help that they needed. Emotions must not override medical treatment, of course, and a nurse must not be dictated to by her feelings. But the human side to treating the sick and dying must not be cast aside. Hospital care needs to maintain a humane dimension, with patients able to relate to those who treat them.
Never forget that we are all equal in this and that, sooner or later, you and I may need such care. You and I may become vulnerable, and depend on women nurses and carers.
(2) Brugère, Fabienne (2017). L’Éthique du Care (Presses universitaires de France)