Covid19 and the myth of the ‘home’ as a haven

As we continue to #Stay at Home and stick to social distancing rules in Scotland, this week Dr Nina Teasdale,  Research Fellow at the WiSE Centre for Economic Justice,  reminds us that for some there is no home available and for many others it is not the safe haven we would all wish


Covid19 and the myth of the ‘home’ as a haven

Nina Teasdale


Coronavirus has forced many countries across the world, including the UK, into a state of lockdown to try to slow the rate of infection and prevent the overwhelming of health services – many of which were already at a point of crisis, following years of inadequate funding. The UK government announced its lockdown on 23 March, declaring that ‘the single most important action we can all take is to stay at home’. Schools were closed – only providing care for vulnerable children or pupils of key workers (many of them women) and all but key or essential workers have been expected to work at home. Two implicit assumptions have been made in the call from governments to ‘stay home’: firstly, it is assumed that we all have a home – even though 1.6 million people worldwide lack adequate housing, with approximately 25,000 people in the UK reported to be rough sleepers. And secondly, it has been assumed that home is a ‘haven’ and a safe place to be.

As central to the response of the pandemic, the ‘home’ has become visible as a multifunctional ‘space’ with blurred and overlapping boundaries – a space to eat and sleep, an office space, a space for schooling and education, a space for shielding for those with chronic and very serious illnesses and a space for health care for those suffering with the virus itself. Social scientists argue that households and homes are diverse and dynamic – some people living alone or as lone parents with children, others living in intergenerational households or blended family units, and still others living in rented rooms within a house, influenced and shaped along class, gender, race, sexuality, and age lines. Moreover, the ‘home’ is not harmonious for all – feminist scholars having long scrutinised power relations, along with women’s unpaid work, within the home.

For some, home is a lonely space and for those living in poor and cramped housing conditions (many of whom are BAME people), there is little space to carry out all that is now expected within the Covid19 -multifunctional home. Members of some ‘homes’ – those from lower socio-economic, and BAME, groups – are also disproportionately suffering from the virus. Following existing gendered patterns, childcare and home-schooling is being undertaken more by mothers, regardless of whether they are home working, working outside the home or not working at all. ONS figures from 2016 value unpaid care work in the home to be £1.01tn – approximately 56% of GDP. For those who are home carers, (the majority women), there has been silence from government on the unpaid care work they continue to provide, despite saving the economy nearly £60 billion yearly. And for those who are ‘elderly’, they are either being left to succumb to the virus as residents of care homes or expected to shield and remove themselves from society, confined indefinitely to the ‘home’.

For some women, children and men, ‘home’ has always been a place of fear, a space of violence and abuse before the pandemic, but now imprisoned as a result of forced co-existence and little opportunity to escape with schools and workplaces shut. Indeed, for millions with abusive partners or relatives, and for LGBTQ young people with hostile families, lockdown has not only exacerbated tensions but increased cases of physical, verbal and emotional abuse, even death. The UN Population Fund (UNFPA) has estimated a 20% increase in violence during an average three-month lockdown in all 193 UN member states.

In the UK, the charity Refuge has reported a 25% increase in calls and online requests for help to the National Domestic Abuse helpline. Under the Twitter hashtag #YouAreNotAlone, the Home Office has launched a campaign to encourage the public to show their solidarity for victims. However, the Westminster government has been slower to promote alternative accommodation to help women and children escape domestic abuse, despite hotels being quick to offer support by opening up their rooms. Here in Scotland, grants have been made from the Scottish Government’s £350 million Communities Fund to Scottish Women’s Aid and Rape Crisis Scotland to maintain access to key support services.

For those who are homeless, there is nowhere to call ‘home’. Homeless migrant men and women, with no recourse to public funds are unable to claim local authority support, and while the UK claims to have now housed 90% of rough sleepers, the specific and heterogenous needs of the homeless, despite the dedicated work of homeless charities, continue to be forgotten.

As many social commentators continue to remind us, far from being the great leveller espoused by Boris Johnson, Covid19 is in fact colliding with, and amplifying, existing social, health and economic inequalities along gendered and intersectional lines. It is clear that having not only a ‘home’, but a safe ‘home’, is crucial and urgently needs to be prioritised by governments. Also crucial is that the unpaid and gendered work that goes on in our ‘homes’ remains visible and is understood as central to the world’s economies. The fragility of the economy has been dramatically exposed by Covid19 and without the unpaid work and care provided by many women in the ‘home’ (and as key workers too), it would have collapsed completely. It is critical that we remember this, along with the fact not all ‘homes’ are equal, during the rebuild.

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