by Alison Webster, Deputy Director of Mission (Social Responsibility) in the Diocese of Oxford and author of ‘Found Out‘ and ‘You Are Mine’
I have spent a lot of time recently looking out of windows. Commuting long distances by car is no more. Attending endless meetings in small rooms with other people is no more. Work has become a matter of inhabiting an armchair at home, looking out of the window, doing mental work. And sitting at my desk looking through Microsoft windows, at a myriad of collegial faces, gathering in the unity of Zoom.
I have embraced a life of staying put. I have been forced to pause. I now see from the inside out. Am I being turned inside out?
As I look at the world outside my window, I notice things inside myself. I become acutely aware of things I have valued, often without even noticing that I valued them. I see that my life is an ableist life. It has the marks of an uncritical participation in the assumptions of mobility. It is a life where I ricochet from one fixed point in the diary to the next; careening from one damn thing to another, in a world of exteriority. looking from the inside out, I start to see things differently.
As I look at the world outside my window, I hear stories. And some shocking inequalities are brought newly into focus.
There is the story of Vivienne, a care worker who does not feel valued. Her workplace is terrifying. She works for the national living wage of £8.10 per hour, nights and weekends, then comes home to the one room she shares with her young son. The kitchen and bathroom are shared with 10 other adults and several children. There can be no ‘social distancing’ here. This is not temporary accommodation; she’s been here for three years. The rent is £600 a month, more than half of her earnings. She would welcome protective equipment, testing, recognition, decent pay, secure working conditions, and proper training and support. Her dream is for her son’s happiness.
And then there is Tabitha, also a care worker. She became ill with Covid 19 early on. She couldn’t breathe or speak. She was off sick for 28 days with symptoms, but without income. If not for the daily hot lunches brought to her by a faith group, she wonders how she would have survived. Now back at work she walks an hour each way because she can’t afford public transport.
And finally, the story of a friend of mine, a mental health care worker and a poet who, long before the current crisis, raged frequently and eloquently about ‘the neoliberal “caring” failure’. She says, ‘The failure of mental health services to adequately respond to the most broken psyches in society is a function of the lack of value placed on the complexities of humanity. The lived wisdom of authentically responding to a suffering person is not to be found in a manual, nor a diagnosis based on a medicalised reality. It is to be found in the heart. The heart of the human being doing a 13 hour shift, getting kicked, punched, spat at, and being top-down managed by folk with one eye on the profit-making balance sheet, and both feet firmly placed within the global market of the “caring” industry.’
In her brilliant book, ‘Radical Help’, Hilary Cottam says this, ‘Good care…is emotional labour: it is intensive, exhausting, sometimes lonely and boring, but always about deep human connection and relationships. Our current Welfare institutions cannot provide care. Worse, they cannot even speak a language with which we might begin to think warmly and humanly about what is needed. Caring for each other is not about efficiency or units of production. It is about human connection, our development, and at the end our comfort and dignity.’
And now we have a window. A window to achieve political change. We cannot go back to accepting the structures of an industry that monetises frailty and drives the hardest, leanest, meanest possible bargain.
As individuals and families we have taken to the streets weekly to clap our carers, whilst simultaneously tolerating a system that has put those same carers at risk of dying. And they have died. At twice the rate of the general population.
Citizens UK has launched its #LivingWage4carers campaign, centring around the shocking impact of Covid-19 on the social care sector. Together with an alliance of organisations and senior figures, Citizens is calling for a new financial settlement, raising all employees up to the real Living Wage. Let’s join in with that.
Let’s join in knowing that this is a start, but it is not enough. It is nowhere near enough.
We need an economy that reflects a different reality. One that serves not just the ableist autonomy of the few, but the vulnerability and interdependence of the many. An economy based on good love. Good love invests time. Good love connects. Good love brings us out of ourselves. Good love recognises that everyone has needs, and everyone has something precious to give. We need to move towards this economy now. Covid 19 has taught us this. It has shown us the need to de-atomise ourselves, so that all of us get to participate in the world outside our windows, even if we cannot go outside.
Music in Podcast provided by Ben Okafor (used with permission)
Photo by Amaka Okafor