← BLOG
20.04.2020

Care for the people in times of pandemic: collective reflections to overcome uncertainty, essays to avoid inhabiting impotence

by the Plurinational and Popular Parliament of Women, and Feminist Organizations of Ecuador. Translation from Spanish to English by Hans Bryssinck.

We are writing this with many hands, with the ideas that have emerged in these days through the virtual proposals and reflections that as a Parliament we have unleashed. We write in confinement, but never in desolation (Lagarde, 2012). Knowing ourselves together in the midst of this crisis is what allows us not to lose the collective commitment to organize hope, and to transform everything.

SOME CLUES TO THINK TOGETHER ABOUT WHAT THE EMERGENCY IS MADE OF

1. IN THE FACE OF THE LOGIC OF WAR AND SATURATION, THE CRISIS AND RADICAL LISTENING AS A POSSIBILITY OF A COLLECTIVE PATH

Capitalism, as a social order, takes advantage of the emergency to reinforce its business logic, and perpetuate the structure of social classes and unequal exchanges; meanwhile "neoliberalism shamelessly puts on the garb of the State of war" (López Petit, 2020). In this way, the generalized emergence highlights the historical structures in which the system has arisen. In the case of Latin America this concerns the coloniality of power-knowledge-being, the sexual, racial and international division of labor, and the transfer of natural resources and overexploited labor force to the North and the industrialized societies[1]. We live sometimes as original accumulation of capital, and other times as a neoliberal phase in which "capital fights the decreasing tendency of the profit rates by means of the direct appropriation of common wealth, that is, by means of plundering and dispossession" (Diego Sztulwark paraphrasing Jun Fujita Hirose, March 7, 2020).

Those of us who write this text come from a country where capitalism is only possible because it coexists and is subsidized by relations of servitude and unpaid domestic work (in 2019, 20% of Ecuador's GDP corresponds to unpaid work, that 20% is made up of 15.2% contributed by women, while men contribute 4.8%). The economy of Ecuador and the support of the State depend on the primary export model and on extractive income (oil, bananas and cocoa)[2]. This means that the economic strategies adopted for diversification, modernization and industrialization are not effective in overcoming the pattern of primary export accumulation, because they constitute mechanisms that transfer value to developed capitalist economies. But it also implies that 40% of the Economically Active Population (EAP) faces a fluctuating 40% of underemployment: mostly without social security, generally self-employed, without unionization and without labor stability.

This emergency shows that the plundering and dispossession of the working class, reinforced in the last four decades, is deepening the international division of labor.[3] Precarization, overexploitation and the lack of labor rights for broad sectors of the population are part of the long memory of this depending capitalism. If the imperative is to obey in order to survive, staying at home means a new adjustment in the control of life: the popular sectors that live on what they earn per day, per fortnight, cannot stop working because they do not survive, but if they go out to survive, they are fined or detained by the police forces. For us, quarantine is a class privilege, so what are the possible ways for the underemployed working class without labor rights to remain in quarantine, when they do not have income to buy food? For now, we see two: a growing debt of families and an increasing burden of care work. And in spite of the measures, many people try to take the streets or demand minimum working conditions and guaranteed wages and job stability. Among them: informal workers who sell on the streets and make a living from what they sell daily; or delivery workers on digital platforms, which constitute a form of servitude exploited for the benefit of the middle and upper classes who pay for this service and whose work allows large transnational companies to make a profit, authorized and promoted by the State so that they do not stay at home; or paid domestic workers who work "inside" during quarantine; or those who have stopped going to work but no longer receive their fortnightly pay. This labor exploitation and these jobs in themselves guarantee the survival of the middle and upper classes who have less risk of contagion, while the working and popular classes are more exposed and have less guarantee of survival.

After a decade of progressive government, organized in the rhetoric of overcoming the long night of neoliberalism, and almost three years of deepening neoliberal policies, Ecuador is facing the emergence of the COVID-19 in a situation of economic and political crisis that shows the enormous structural problems that remain in a rentier and dollarized economy, which justifies the unaffected profits and the concentration of wealth of the elites, through increased debt and de-financing of the healthcare system.

Ecuador has been in crisis long before the last global pandemic. During the first ten years of the "Citizen's Revolution", the consolidation of a medical industrial complex was denounced. This complex implied large accumulated profits for the supply and pharmaceutical industries with references to private hospitals, as well as corruptive deviations, with an exponential growth in the number of consultations but very limited actions in the prevention and promotion of health. Investment in healthcare was increased, however maternal mortality and child malnutrition were never reduced. The hyper-state-control and modernization of our lives left us without organizations to promote community, with traditional midwives on the ground without authorization to attend births, with social organizations dismantled: a social fabric devastated by a progressive government. It was absurd to propose a "healthcare revolution" while accentuating toxic and destructive lifestyles with intensive extractivism (oil, mining, etc.) and while persecuting those who denounced the contamination/dispossession of their territories. In addition to this, a free trade agreement was signed with the European Union (2015) and finally, in the second government of Alianza País, this time with Lenin Moreno, an agreement was signed with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) implying aggressive indebtedness (2019).

By May 2019, the cuts in personnel and the reduction in healthcare expenditure lead to healthcare centers without medication or supplies, the implementation of the IMF policies, attempts to reduce salaries for rotational interns, etc.[4] Several healthcare centers and hospitals that were already surviving the budget cuts of recent years had to manage supplies and personnel in the midst of the contingency. Doctors had no choice but to organize themselves to supply and protect themselves at the same time. Now in neoliberal cities like Guayaquil, the popular sectors can no longer go to hospitals to be treated for other diseases or pending operations. With the exponential advance of the pandemic and the precarious Ecuadorian health system, there is no capacity to attend to anything other than COVID-19.

In addition to the history of under-financing of collective healthcare systems, the constant threat of privatization of social security and unequal access to scientific knowledge – which we never produce, but always buy – we have to add the organic composition of capital and the way it acquires surplus value, both the one acquired through productive work and as the one which exists through unpaid reproductive work. At the same time, the differences among Latin American countries, in the pattern of accumulation and the production of technology and scientific knowledge are becoming evident. We are aware, however, that the knowhow of peoples and nationalities is not given any value. That knowhow has now been rescued by means of disseminating systems for prevention against the virus. As Paco Gómez Nadal wrote these days: "look at the Global South, where positive psychology has not wrecked human resilience and where the ability to overcome trauma continues to rely on fragile cooperation networks where conflict is as permanent as the solutions to day-to-day dilemmas"(2020). It is precisely there, in the way that capitalism, coloniality and patriarchy have taken place in Latin America, that we inhabit the crisis.

A few years ago, Naomi Klein explained us the shock doctrine, and it’s exactly what we are living through these weeks: it’s a recurrent tactic of the liberal right in which, after a natural disaster, un coup d’état, a war or a terrorist attack, the disorientation of the public is exploited to suspend democracy, apply radical free market public policy and thus redirect profits to the elites. But what happens when this doctrine is applied to insubordinate peoples and survivors of historical violent plundering? After the insurrections of 2019, we have learned that the logic of war that the State seeks to implement, whether in times of uprisings, or in moments of coronavirus, is merely a mechanism for building internal enemies that justify everything: payment of foreign debt[5], police on the streets, purchase of weapons. In these days of aggressive indebtedness, we have said that the foreign debt is the real illness. We want to live, and to live with dignity.

For its part, the government of Lenin Moreno decreed a campaign to donate food kits from the monopolies and commercial oligopolies, leaving aside peasant family agriculture that feeds not only the majority of the people but also supports the economy of Ecuador. In addition to this, the quarantine was declared throughout the country; there was the closure of educational centers; the institutions that taught classes online, but only made possible by working from home; teleworking. In some cities there’s a curfew; the population will only be able to mobilize in case it is required to purchase food. It is suggested that in order to do so, digital platforms, such as Uber, Glovo and Rappi can be used, and thus contact between people can be avoided.

The main argument is that these measures are necessary to avoid the collapse of the healthcare system and to ensure that the contagion curve is flattened[6]. Obedience in exchange for survival, wrote Amador Fernández Savater (2020) a few days ago. In the face of the rhetoric of peripheral neoliberalism that doesn’t manage the crisis, and the general mistrust of the population, which after the October strike, the government is placed under suspicion. The escalation of contagion and deaths in recent days has forced the emergence of different proposals to finance collective healthcare, and to politicize the moment. For us women[7], confinement has meant an increasing burden of care work that already weighed on our bodies: education, mental and emotional health, and the possibility that family spaces are not in permanent crisis, because they are supported mostly by women.

2. PANDEMIC AND CARE CRISIS

The declaration of a pandemic (WHO 2020) and the consequent measures that most countries adopted in these weeks in response to the health emergency occurred in a context of crisis in care, resulting from the changes in the role of women in the economy, the capitalist and patriarchal organization of care work, and the withdrawal of the State from the social sphere (Hochschild,1995). Despite the crisis, the organization of reproductive work has not only remained unchanged, based on the double or triple workdays that women perform in both the productive and reproductive spheres, but is also marked by the logic of accumulation of the large economic groups that make living conditions more and more precarious, while increasing their profits. As the Italian comrades maintain, this is happening "just when capital has become a pandemic" (Connessioni Precarie, 2020).

We know that the pandemic, added to the sexual division of labor, the feminization of health and poverty, places women on "the front line" to face this moment. It is the nurses; the cleaners; the paid domestic workers - mostly migrant and racialized - who care for children and the elderly; the delivery workers; the cooks; the informal workers; the owners of neighbourhood shops to provide bread and food for the whole neighbourhood; the peasants who produce food; those who manage food rationing; those who reassure the sick while they wait on their beds for the medical diagnosis; those who cannot be quarantined if their children do not have the necessary food to survive; those who do the emotional and care work to calm the anxiety of living in confinement; those who, putting themselves at risk, disinfect the places both inside and outside the homes so that the virus does not spread... Those women who, with their over-exploited and precarious work, contribute to making life in the midst of the pandemic sustainable. On the even blurrier frontier between production and reproduction, they turn working in quarantine into an intensified dimension that organizes daily life.

Whether or not it is compulsory confinement, life is unsustainable without the unpaid work that we do every day.

3. THE HISTORY IN DISPUTE: POLITICIZING CONFINEMENT AND UNCERTAINTY FROM THE ETHICS OF CARE AND THE NON-STATE FORM OF ORGANIZATION

We are aware that the #StayHome promoted at the global level, is a measure of security and social responsibility to contain the contagion and avoid further social collapse; but for us, the anguish and helplessness that this measure generates, is also a historic opportunity to think about interdependence, empathy and solidarity. As Marina Garcés said, "vulnerability is also our fundamental link with others, which links our existence to other existences. (...) Interdependence is the revelation of our impossibility of being only one individual. To experience our interdependence, to experience the "we" as a dimension of our own existence, is a way to reconquer the world" (2008). In the virtual platforms where we are lucky enough to share with our friends, colleagues and family members, there is no lack of messages of concern, solidarity and forms of resistance. Without these networks, life itself is not possible, much less life in quarantine. In the same way, we feel a longing for water, wind, mountains, plants.

In the social networks, artists, healthcare workers, gastronomes, social scientists, etc., offer their services to solve doubts, to help, to support. They have not diminished the listening and the attention for those who feel lonely, vulnerable or who fear for their lives. Thus, in one of the most feminicidal continents, we feminists continue to accompany those who live with male violence in quarantine. There has been no lack of friends who, even when they know they are exposed to the contagion, leave the house if a neighbour needs support.

We, on the other hand, have not stopped imagining and creating strategies to challenge and demand that the State, in the midst of precariousness and dependence, fulfill its obligation to look after the entire population. But along with the policy of questioning, we give center stage to forms of dealing with uncertainty that don’t come not from the State: we create networks to collect products or money, we make baskets of food and basic necessities for families that do not have the minimum right to food and healthcare. There is no lack of those who offer to take care of the children so that the other women can also take care of themselves, or those who accompany their school work from a distance, etc.

There are also those who share with us how the #StayHome has paused the voracious and destructive logic of capitalism, temporarily improving life on the planet. And there are the fighters who, from their territories, show the infamous and senseless project of some elites and governments that resort to mining and oil to finance the country's economy: have we already realized that we live from agriculture and not from mining? The quarantine invites us to think how another non-capitalist world is possible. To value the closeness, the hugs, the affections, the words in the ear and looking into the eyes, the hands that work and cultivate the land so that we do not lack daily food, those that prepare food and distribute it, those that heal and relieve, those that caress: "Fighting impotence and embodying criticism involves, first of all, attacking that self: attacking the values with which we fly over the world, attacking the opinions with which we protect ourselves from it, attacking our particular and precarious well-being" (Garcés 395: 2019). It is time to think of ourselves as part of something broader, more humble, empathic. Put life in the center and understand that no life is worth more than another, that we all need lives of dignity and freedom from violence, as the indigenous peoples have always tought us.

Franco Bernardo Bifo lucidly named this emergency: relational paralysis (Bifo, 2020). How then do we imagine care, if to appease contagion we require a suspension of relations? How do we politicize physical distance and confinement? How do we collectively construct a present body that cannot bend to the politics of rooting, while capital and the virus continue to circulate? Which memories do we belong to, which do we honor?

We think. We make silence. We let the question resonate in the body. Is it real that in all territories relationships are suspended? For many peoples, the quarantine is not individual because survival is collective. There are families that in the midst of precarization have decided to join together in quarantine and collectivize their resources and food. In the face of the risk of contagion and hunger, food and community care are the most important.

Let's remember that since the uprising of October 2019, the constant alert and the ways to overcome states of emergency, curfew, community pots, confrontations on the front line, generalized repression, forced us to go through uncertainty and learn to act on the road, while embodying. During the strike, the women (#MujeresContraElPaquetazo, the indigenous sisters, as well as comrades from various feminist collectives and organizations) put forward proposals, protest and direct action, as well as care and emotional support. If throughout history we have been the ones to talk about what we don't want to talk about (feminicide and clandestine abortions), it was during those days in October that we showed what we didn't want to see. In times of darkness and repression, we managed to shed light on the time of rebellion and insurrection. Summoned by the indigenous women, we traveled through Quito, changing the logic of the confrontation that had been established, and isolating the war discourse that was being waged by the State and the elites. Our demands were always accompanied by the ethics of care, which later, with the Parliament, was established as a way of doing politics and building that among us.

The memory of the strike is present in these weeks of quarantine and virus. But now the scenario is different: one that forces us to be at a distance so as not to get sick or to make the others sick, that keeps us away from each other, that prevents us from touching, hugging and crying together to heal. We don't know how yet, but for now, we face the saturation of information and fear, and we rehearse radical listening[8], which makes healing a political economy of affections.

But also in these days, we invented ways to celebrate the Pawkar Raymi (Andean New Year) from our homes, we lit candles, we shared around the fire: "in this flowering, may wisdom, reciprocity and rebellion sprout", we said. In this way, we believe, together with our ancestor, that we are building something collective that perhaps can illuminate this moment, from the commitment to life. Faced with the logic of cruelty, violence and opportunism of capital, we insist on placing life and care at the center. And we are living care. In the path of the pandemic, we defined that we were not going to allow the elites and the State, the political and economic right, to determine the meaning of this historical moment. We politicized the distance and from the Parliament we proposed, Care for the People; we sought to honor the memory of the strike, and we "hit our casseroles", so that "the casseroles give us strength and serve as a fraternal embrace”.

The dispute over the historical sense shouldn’t be ascribed to the apparent dilemma that places the State vs. the market. It would seem that to get through this moment, there are only two paths: either the absurd neo-liberalization of the entire economy (marketing all public services and healthcare as a commodity) or the return of a State that controls everything, provides everything and replaces social organization. For us who inhabit plural societies, a central debate is the political content of autonomy in which the national State does not constitute the only political community, nor the only public framework. If the first ten years of the Citizens' Revolution (which dismantled organizations of local, indigenous, women's and rural promoters to replace them with technicians with a high school diploma and replaced social marginalization with incorporation into consumption) taught us anything, it is that healthcare is also built from the community and not only from the State.

Like with the strike, the quarantine here shows the trivalent and historical relationship that the peoples of Ecuador have had with the State: with the State, against the State and beyond the State. A relationship that occurs simultaneously and that, for example, implies that we demand protection programs and measures from the State but we do not give it the power to govern our lives and co-opt everything. This means that for us, as well as for the indigenous organizations, the Parliament of the Peoples, the peasant and farmers' organizations, the way out of the health crisis and the imminent economic crisis is neither neoliberal nor merely state-driven.

That is why when the Ecuadorian government launched the campaign of citizen donation of food kits via the large supermarkets and the Chamber of Commerce; the leftist organizations proposed non-payment of the foreign debt; the urban collectives proposed donation of food from neighborhood stores, small shops and local producers for those who have nothing to eat; the CONAIE promoted the creation of an emergency fund that would come out of the extractive income and the end of the agreement with the IMF, and collection of food from small farmers to supply the neediest population. Food sovereignty and the non-commercialization of survival through the purchase of food from large companies is being demanded by us, by the indigenous movement and the population from different territories. We seek to put the network of interdependence in check, where we do not depend on market offers but survive by guaranteeing the dignified life of the farmers, the feeding of the population and the non-enrichment of the big companies and transnationals. We are concerned about hunger, the intensification of violence, the militarization of the territories and the progressive indebtedness of the country and of our lives. Therefore, we demand care for the people, care for life, health and dignity.

In the sound of the casseroles these days, you can hear the echo... only the people save the people.


[1] The reflections of the Theory of Dependency, as well as the criticism towards it, showed some decades ago, how the case of Ecuador made it clear that capitalism in Latin America implies the coexistence of other "pre-capitalist" socioeconomic and productive formations that subsidize, transfer value and generate differentiated income, allowing the reproduction of capital.
[2] Until the first half of the 20th century, Ecuador's economic model was composed of the extraction of income in work and in kind (original accumulation). With the entry into the process of capitalist modernization, these social relations of production will suffer some modifications through reform policies, but their dependence on the international market remains intact, in fact improving their insertion in the market.
[3] The highlighting of certain phrases is done by Hans Bryssinck (translator)
[4] Healthcare in times of Austerity https://ecuadortoday.media/2019/05/02/salud-en-epoca-de-austeridad/
[5] Today, March 23rd, Ecuador paid 324 million dollars for foreign debt obligations; while the government argued that in crisis, there was no emergency health fund.
[6] We are one of the countries with the highest numbers and relative percentages of infected people in the region.
[7] The Spanish word nosotras has an implied female gender, whereas in English the word is gender neutral. (Note of the translator)
[8] Mexican comrade Lía García says that only poetry and radical listening can heal.