The cradle will rock

The social crisis produced by the coronavirus has had a major impact on children and the way their care is organised. Here, a nursery worker reflects on a fortnight of uncertainty and change.

‘If labour power produces value, how is labour power itself produced?’ asks Tithi Bhattacharya, in her short introduction to social reproduction theory. Let that question gently percolate as I describe the last fortnight at work.

I am a Child Development Officer in Scotland; I work in a council nursery with babies. Two weeks ago, coronavirus provided nothing more than a background hum to daily life. Passing remarks between staff – something about people eating bats in China (note: Covid-19 was caused neither by bat-eating, nor by Chinese people but by human mismanagement of the planet); fatalities in Italy; a cruise ship quarantined. Maybe it would come here, we joked; the idea as yet unimaginable.

A week ago, it was clear that Covid-19 had arrived. In the UK, cases were spreading, and the first deaths were recorded. Many European countries had closed their schools and borders. The government here continued to emphasise economic considerations, reassuring the people that its approach was ‘science-led’. Italy was on lockdown, while in Britain we sang ‘Happy Birthday’ (twice!) while washing our hands. Then we heard Chief Scientific Advisor Sir Patrick Vallance tell Radio Four’s Today programme:

Our aim is to try and reduce the peak, broaden the peak, not suppress it completely; also because the vast majority of people get a mild illness, to build up some kind of herd immunity so more people are immune to this disease and we reduce the transmission.

The staff-room was trying to collectively wrap its head around the pandemic, and our response. What does the science mean for us, we asked? What is this talk of peaks and herds about? Does it have to be a fever AND a cough to be coronavirus? Are children basically safe? But then none of us is without elderly relatives or underlying medical conditions… some even speculated that it was a coordinated Chinese attack (first Huawei, now Covid?). One thing was certain, Boris’s dad wouldn’t be queuing for limited oxygen therapy supplies with the rest of us. Then there was the Daily Telegraph journalist Jeremy Warner, who wrote ‘Covid-19 might even prove mildly beneficial in the long term by disproportionately killing elderly dependents’. Mistrust in government and lack of information led conspiracy theories (some racist) to thrive.

The lack of clear direction from the top translated into business as usual on the ground. On Wednesday, we sent a baby home because he developed a high temperature (between 38 and 39 degrees). On Thursday, the temperature had subsided, so our Head of Centre, in line with official guidance, allowed him back into nursery. Several others followed suit across the nursery age range – more children were sent home as their temperatures spiked, dry coughs abounded. Clearly, there was some virus doing the rounds (not teething, as one disgruntled parent insisted – not when there were so many children with the same symptom!). Another parent said they had noticed their child seemed unwell, but they’d perked up with a bit of Calpol, so into nursery they came.

On Thursday night, Boris Johnson announced that anybody displaying symptoms must self-isolate for seven days. Family members were still ok to go to work. Nicola Sturgeon did not dissent, nor anyone at senior level in the council. Accordingly, the final word from management last Friday was that self-isolation was a matter of parental choice. We could explain the government advice, but if a parent decided to bring their child back to nursery on Monday, we would be obliged to take them. If the sibling of a child with symptoms presented, we would take them too. In the absence of ‘confirmed cases’ (read: ‘testing’), we were presuming that these children did not have the novel coronavirus, when we should have presumed the opposite and acted accordingly. As the last week progressed, nursery procedures have mirrored national guidelines in increasing stringency. Our nursery is a nurturing environment, and I generally trust that my managers care about my welfare. But in this case, I feel we got some things wrong. Not out of malice, but rather from well-meaning adherence to the official line. I now fear that our slow national response will cost lives.

So what could, or should we have done that we didn’t? In my opinion, management should have met with every member of staff at least two weeks ago to thoroughly risk assess the job. Then there would surely have been clear notices throughout the building detailing our response. Possibly hand sanitiser at the door. A definite tightening up of hand washing and resource-cleaning. Necessary personal protective equipment identified and ordered.

Staff members independently took the initiative to implement control measures, but on the whole, the impression was an eerie pretence of keeping calm and carrying on. My own anxiety levels were high; not so much from fear of disease, rather because I felt unprotected.

The position has now changed. Schools and nurseries are shut, and the government has begun to enforce social distancing by compelling the closure of bars and restaurants. As with many key workers, I will now likely be compelled to go to work. Childcare workers will support frontline families – and rightly so. Yet I am reliant on parents and carers in my community to follow basic infection control procedures, including self-isolation where necessary. I want to feel that my employer has my back when it comes to health and safety – my own, and that of my child. Remember, most nursery workers are women, with children and grandchildren of our own. Our kids will need to be looked after while we care for the families of others.

It turns out that the services many take for granted are the ones we most need during this pandemic. These roles include childcare, cleaning, catering, retail, care for the sick and elderly and support for vulnerable families at increased risk of hunger, gender-based violence and social isolation.

If the recent Equal Pay dispute brought our ‘invisible’ labour to prominence, Covid-19 has further increased our visibility. Hedge-fund managers and billionaires do not feature on the essential workers list for good reason. Now is an opportune moment for those of us engaged in ‘women’s work’ to challenge old assumptions about the primacy of profit, and advocate instead our human-centred, caring vision of society. As our work becomes visible, let our voices be heard: let’s demand proper protection and recognition for our work. Surely that’s the least any of us deserve.

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