The inequalities laid bare by the COVID-19 pandemic have had particular implications for the wellbeing of family carers. This article considers these impacts from a social justice perspective, drawing on elements of the ethics of care and the capabilities approach, as well as findings from interviews with 30 family carers in Wales, UK, during the initial months of ‘lockdown’ in 2020. In the interviews, key themes emerged around the sense of loss, poorer outcomes, ‘caring solidarity’ and its absence, and concerns about the dominant discourse on care. Although rooted in the specifics of the pandemic experience, all have wider implications for how we understand wellbeing itself, and, in particular, its application to questions of social justice. We argue for the value of an extended conception of wellbeing – one that avoids the individualistic tendencies of some accounts and incorporates the importance of relationality and extrinsic material factors.
Age was central to how the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded, right from the start. In its initial responses in the early spring of 2020 – through the Coronavirus Act 2020 and surrounding measures – the UK government deployed chronological age as a marker, with the whole of the UK population over 70 identified as particularly vulnerable to the disease and subject to peremptory quarantine directives and restricted freedoms. These steps affected family members caring for people in this category – either indirectly, through their connection to the person they care for, or (also) directly, as many family carers are themselves over 70. The wellbeing of unpaid family carers has been very importantly at stake, in considering the implications of policy responses to the pandemic. Yet their position is largely hidden. So, while research evidence is beginning to gather on the impact of COVID-19 in relation to care, and particularly health care, little is known about the impact of the virus on people giving and receiving care in community settings (Woolham et al, 2020). While it has become something of a cliché to say that the experience of the pandemic has laid bare hitherto under-recognised patterns of disadvantage, the light still only rarely shines on the situations of family carers.
This absence of attention is critical, for two reasons. First, the role of family carers is growing and becoming more pivotal. Across Europe, there is an increasing reliance on family carers to provide essential care services to older and disabled people living in the community (Saraceno and Keck, 2010; Cooney and Dykstra, 2011; Kodate and Timonen, 2017).