Looking at a cuckoo’s egg: Aspects of the corona-crisis in a Dutch context

Corona-crisis: is this a time for reflections on political consequences of this crisis, such as ‘lessons learned’? Or is it a time when the suffering and anxiety of many come so close to home that any kind of reflection could easily take the shape of a shortcut to new and ‘better principles for the world’?

This longing for a ‘cure’ for the unbelievable which is happening to contemporary realities, making at least West-European safety promises (permanently) unreliable, could lead to visionary reflections. Yet interaction between a plausible intellectual back-up parachute and the actual emotional involvement could also lead to a painful conclusion and an uprooted perception of reality: our prior focus on the future and planning might be torn apart, because the pandemic threat is an adversary which often forces us nowadays to revise our views on reality.
To anticipate a situation might mean, having to perceive it as having no inherent, achievable way out, at least not at that actual moment. For example, suppose the people close to you work or live in a nursery home, and overnight this so called ‘sheltered home environment’ and ‘safe’ workplace changes into a – potentially – deadly trap, as the employer is not able to supply sufficient protection against infection with the harmful virus. Then care receivers and caregivers are doomed to stay too close together, in a thus permanently risky situation.

Looking at a cuckoo’s egg

Having said this, I know this kind of being harmfully touched and being held captive is daily practice for many people in other kinds of situations of crisis, like in multiple long-lasting wars around the world, or in individual situations with no real ‘way out’. This thought is by no means meant to ‘downplay’ any anxiety and suffering in the current Western (European) world.
On the contrary, I am seeking indications for the kind of learning the actual situation could present us with, by way of some kind of unwelcome cuckoo’s egg: lessons to go through before being learned. The significance of going through an experience is a care-ethical claim, pointing out the relevance of the first-person-views on daily experienced life for options to transform society.
For that reason, care-ethical research is also directed towards the emotional and intuitive substance of an experience in (institutional) care situations. This substance can be one source of (professional) knowledge enhancement, yet is often rejected as being too subjective and therefore non-professional. In this corona-crisis however, I observe opposite phenomena occurring, at least in the discourses I shall outline below.

Public opinion

Which viewpoints then, can one discern emerging in this period, which in The Netherlands officially began some one and a half month ago? The overall perception, published in the daily news, and elaborated in sociological and philosophical essays – in a nutshell – could be described as follows: in this global crisis the world is perceived as being ‘upside down’, with an inherent potential for ‘change’ of an economic system that is vulnerable to crises, which is in turn a main factor in itself in the current crisis. Instead of just being an overall benefit, the global intertwining is equally seen as a global trap.
Other conclusions are also voiced: ‘We all are in the same boat now’. Really? Can all things happening, pave the way to this collectively going through a relevant experience with ‘lessons learned’ as an outcome? Are these ‘experiences’, obtained from the-first-person-perspectives, not too different from one another?
Power- and social imbalances have not diminished in this period of crisis, not even in a relatively (compared to other parts of the world) egalitarian country like The Netherlands. On the contrary, at first glance the imbalances are surfacing all the more. And they could exacerbate even more, when the national social security system gets challenged too much, simultaneously strained by global economic recessive dynamics.

Self-reliance versus governmental aid

In addition to the personal, emotional and reflective dimensions, a care-ethical approach has to take into account the specific socio-political context, including its economic constellation. These aspects give the Dutch context its specific flavor.
In The Netherlands, the recent government policy stated explicitly that care issues and the economic dimension are not meant to be seen as opposites of one another in the context of this existential crisis. The care for vulnerable citizens gets prioritized.
Before the crisis, the governmental policy mainly constituted of the message that most citizens should look to become self-reliant, followed by budget reductions in the public (care) sector. Confronted with the public suffering of the more vulnerable citizens, hit hard by the virus in large numbers, the economically liberal government now intervenes into daily social and economic life in an hitherto unprecedented, strongly protective and above all, caring way. Even self-employed entrepreneurs with small incomes and an unstable economic and social existence, whose numbers have increased enormously over the years, now receive financial support.
The former (neo-)liberal belief in the regulative capacities of the market system seems to have been replaced by explicit governmental caring protection as a consequence of the confrontation with visible illness and helplessness on a great scale.

The emotional dimension

Remarkably enough, the emotional dimension explicitly gets public attention now in a daily ‘news-update from the (caring) front’ on public television. Cleaners, doctors, nurses, every person in a so called ‘vital’ profession in the health-care sector, is invited to publicize their ‘first-person-perspective’ on situations they are going through in this dramatic and tragic public health-crisis. These widely published individual messages of ‘professional news from the reality of a caring and curing practice’ voice the personal emotional struggle of the caring, strongly committed public health-care professional.
The strong emotional involvement resonating in it seems to be welcomed, and does apparently not seem to distract the medical professional from an otherwise high-standard professionalism. In this existential crisis the subjectivity of the professional is not being suspect, as if ‘non-professional’, in terms of not having enough distance from the care recipient, as this would indicate too much of an emotional engagement. In an existential context where there is less time for discussion and conflict, the unmistakable commitment of those who may warrant survival, is vital.
It appears as if a whole nation is the care-recipient of the public (care) sector. This specific sector is now framed as being quintessential to public life, whereas in pre-corona-times the ‘semi-public’ (health) care-system was for many years subjected to and overloaded by the restrictive context of the free-market paradigm.

Confronting experiences pre- and post-corona

The beholder might be in for a painful confrontation, when looking at this contrast, while at the same time being aware of the relevance of the commitment of a professional caregiver – in general employed by a semi-public employer. Over time, persistent structural pressure on care-professionals has resulted in a visible scarcity of workers in the (health)care sector. Many employees had meanwhile terminated their employment contract in pre-corona times, as an indication that their commitment can get irreparably damaged, if the pressure gets too tough – essentially because the pressure overload does harm their commitment and in it damages their personal core as well.
A visionary discursive revaluation would not suffice to ease this out. On a larger public scale one now might be able to get through the painful confrontation with the former denial of this personal commitment. Would that contribute to a real societal dispute and ‘lessons learned’? The existence of an unambiguous, collective opponent, namely the pandemic disease, leaves at the moment almost no room for interpretation, for a diversity of perspectives or for dispute. The complexity of multi-perceptivity will reappear later. It is questionable if the pain from the above outlined confrontation, if felt at all, will still be present and acknowledged then.

Pre- and post-corona solidarity

Moreover, structurally there may be more unfathomable dynamics at stake again later on. The term ‘solidarity’ is often being mentioned in the actual crisis, on a local and on a nationwide scale. In line with this phenomenon, the neo-liberal market-driven, rationalistic views on organizing socio-political affairs also seem to be ‘on hold’. The social sector in pre-corona-times was, as it was called, ‘overly regulated’ in the competitive context of a market-dogma requiring a certain kind of organizational transparency. In the Dutch context of the semi-public professional care (meaning: institutional care, with underlying market-conditions), the results of this kind of transparency debouched in absurd administrative, repressive regulations, as mentioned above. The complex economic ‘survival-of-the-fittest’ dynamic is momentarily taken over by another mode: fighting side by side for those whose life is actually threatened by a potentially deadly disease. It is an unambiguous objective, far easier to grasp than the complexity that comes with the consequences of uncontrolled, globally operating market forces.
In this new, yet probably temporary mode, the responsibilities are basically clear and locally delineated: the national government protects by setting disciplinary restrictions. To a certain, clearly defined extent, an appeal is made to each citizen to exert their own responsibility. Besides that, the amount of local voluntary work has increased.
These contrasts in discourse comprise a confrontation with the pre-corona reality from before: societal solidarity versus maximum competition as incentive, governmental protection versus the claim of optimizing the personal autarky, clearness versus complexity, defined responsibilities versus obscure systemic Achilles’ heels. These tensions may come to the fore, when one is looking beyond the surface of the crisis.

Which frames will come next?

As I have outlined so far, in the Dutch context, societal conflicting discourses and ideological (governmental) frames are ‘on hold’ in this period of existential threat, whilst ‘transparency’ gets a completely different connotation from the one it had before: not a transparent administrative (over)regulation, but a pragmatic emotional-professional commitment and involvement now conveys a message of basic safety.
So it is time to look at practices. As mentioned above, societal imbalances come even more to the fore. The social urgencies produced by these imbalances will come to show themselves only after the lockdown is over.
What is already noticeable? Not so long ago, precisely 8 months ago, I finished my thesis on the to be desired, yet distorted impact of the voice of the care-giver in the residential long-term-care for the cognitively disabled citizens. Despite the relatively high standard of institutional support, the professional caregivers on the work floor are often under pressure. Their voice, what they experience in their direct (relational) contact with their clients, and which improvements for them would be deemed necessary, was neither heard in public nor in the institution they worked for, because of complex systemic reasons, within a political setting of (competitive) market orientation as described earlier.

Commitment and personal involvement

Besides the discursive aspect as pointed out above, in corona times the emotional-professional commitment is a real, practical daily requirement, as professionals have to constantly make choices between their own safety and health, and the health and safety of their client. The lack of protective medical material and testing units in the sector of the long-term-care make this fact stand out even more.
Tragically, the residential care has remained in the shadow of public and governmental attentiveness in the context of the acute public-healthcare corona-crisis. The general emphasis was put on the cure sector in distributing the personal protective equipment. Nevertheless, the physical closeness is also unavoidable in the residential long-term-care. As a consequence, if the care professionals want to provide the necessary shelter, care and protection for their residential client, they must put their health, or even their life, at risk for the sake of the other.
Moreover, panic arises at the very idea of infecting the even more vulnerable client. After all, the personal involvement of the care professional could not be expressed more clearly. Whereas the viewpoint of the residential care-worker was underrepresented in the pre-corona-times, nowadays a director of a well-established care organization for the handicapped seeks the publicity to voice his concern about the lack of disease protection for his employees. Again a turning point? Or resulting from an unambiguous, collective ‘enemy’ in the context of this specific crisis?

Rebalancing power plays

The ambiguity of the above described dilemma for the residential care-worker emerges within an existential situation. The least powerful in the organizational power play, namely the one who has the most contact with the care-recipient in the residential care for the mentally disabled, is confronted with questions, that matter the most, existentially speaking.
He or she is the only one who really can respond to these questions, because his or her unique relational work is much needed in this kind of care: staff changes would cause unbearable stress and escalation between the anyway scared care-recipients. So, relationality gets a new, existential connotation.
For that reason, at once the care-giver becomes the only one who can make a decision with real impact. This feature can be described as follows: being relatively powerless in the organizational power play, and at the same time being the only one who can make a decision with existential consequences for oneself and the care-recipient. In this case whilst not at all being factually embedded by a responsive organizational frame.
The consequences of this kind of closeness and being ‘exposed’ in a professional relationship clearly stand out when put under a painfully bright spotlight, without any romantic connotations. Care-givers in a location of residential care recently closed themselves in with their clients, going through infection and severe illness together, being aware there was no other solution.

Shifting relationalities

But the organizational power play has various endings, if we look at a different practice case (the information comes from an involved first-person-perspective): in a nursing home many of the elderly care-recipients got ill, yet the general practitioner denied this could be caused by a Covid 19-infection. The caregivers were not allowed to wear protective clothing, even if they knew better because of their own close observations. They involuntarily underwent risks for themselves as well as the elderly care-recipients, but they did not dare to counteract. Former power dynamics were still in place, and so the existential corona crisis does not appear to have lead to a catharsis for this kind of problematic setting.
Another spotlight might be put on different kinds of ‘relationality’, in terms of the phenomenon of increasing domestic violence, that can be observed on a global scale, but also could refer to the Dutch situation. These particular problems in the relational dimension reach the public focus as well, in addition to the attention which the social worker – and other workers with a public task – already had for them.

Confronting insights

To state it clearly: from my current point of view, the public-political tasks such as protection and care cannot be replaced by public-private initiatives with complex competitive economic incentives. Relational action in close contact is complex enough as it is, in terms of being fragile and powerful in multiple ways, as roughly portrayed above. And yet, this kind of particular closeness is disturbingly urgently needed in the face of this tragic public threat. Could the temporary public urgency be a link to a desirable societal transformation beyond the unambiguous crisis situation?
To confront oneself with all the contrasts mentioned above, regarding the pre- and the present-corona-times, could in itself be an experience to get through. Maybe, if the pain from some confronting insights could be felt. At least, this crisis could open up one’s inner self to the many diverse aspects of relationality, however confronting that may be.

Part and parcel

Thus far, self-referentiality, lurking in the dynamics of the ‘free-market-system’, has had less chance in the governmental response to the crisis in the above described, specifically existential context. Formerly fostered self-evidences got offended through the crisis – in terms of the governmental interventions, the public attention and in individual perceptions. ‘Relationality’ comes into the picture on all of these levels, in terms of increasing ‘solidarity’. To a certain extent this societal phenomenon could be localized in the relational dimension, in the current situation being underpinned by the widely promulgated first-person-perspectives. Why are these welcome current phenomena also personally confronting?
As a consequence of relationality, personal self-evidences could be subverted and even offended. Relational settings can therefore be described as fragile and complex, and consequently, the same holds true for solidarity in social settings.
Self-referentiality (i.e. the mode in which individuals and organizations run the risk to refer to themselves) in a global free-market-system also causes complexities and fragilities, but rather in terms of economical livelihood insecurities as a result of losing economic power plays. By these – other – kinds of existential problems, personal insights and self-evidences are profoundly questioned as well.

In this probably upcoming period the additional relational complexity could become even more challenging. In particular, because the ‘first-person-perspectives’ might not have the same unambiguous scope as during the crisis. Resulting in overload, and obfuscating solidarity. To blame anybody would be moralistic then. Again, this is part and parcel – and just as much personally confronting – of the contrasting experiences to go through in this tragic crisis.

About the author: Silke Jacobi

Silke Jacobi (1963) had her master’s degree in the Ethics of Care at the University of Humanistic Studies (Utrecht) in 2019. In her master thesis she investigated 'late modern', invisible power dynamics with seemingly subject-oriented, but equally neoliberal subtitles: this double-tingled, turbulent context influences the morally and critically concerned care-workers and has impact of institutional questions. Since 1990 she explores as a social worker the changes of the complex (institutional) care-praxis also from an inside-perspective. In addition, she worked as a supervisor for upcoming social workers at a university of applied sciences. The broad political-ethical context for care-ethical issues is one of her concerns.

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