By Nahela Nowshin

“Do we really value the labor of domestic workers?” — Photo: Mosfiqur Rahman Johan

It is quite incredible that a microbe has brought the world to a standstill. The coronavirus pandemic has unexpectedly disrupted our daily lives both for better and worse. It is about to be two weeks that I will have been in home quarantine much like the rest of the world.

These two weeks of isolation and introspection have brought about a range of realizations: the destructive effects of mere human presence on the natural world; the globalization of pathologies; the complexity of managing pandemics for governments; and a sense of gratitude for trivial things like being able to take a walk on the streets and having impromptu rendezvous with family and friends.

The Covid-19 pandemic, as we all know by now, has had a disproportionate effect on low-income groups in Bangladesh. Day laborers, part-time housemaids and rickshaw pullers — groups that struggle to make ends meet as it is on a day-to-day basis — have been more strongly hit with the aftereffects of the pandemic.

Many middle- and upper-class households who rely on part-time housemaids have had to let them go for the time being. My family had to do the same thing. Much like many families I know, we too paid our housemaid her monthly salary and let her go for now. The researcher in me couldn’t help but notice the dramatic effects that her absence has had on my household (and I am sure countless other households in Dhaka city).

First, there is a newfound sense of appreciation and gratitude among all of us for the sheer amount of work that domestic workers do on a daily basis. While many of us conscientious citizens are more aware of the huge burden of work on domestic workers — from cleaning to washing to ironing to looking after children and the elderly — true realization only hits you when you have no choice but to do the chores that they do every day.

“I sincerely hope that this crisis brings about a collective realization among the middle class and the wealthy about the true value of the labor of domestic workers and our privileged position as employers who have the upper hand in terms of bargaining power and who hold the key to their economic security.”

“The huge burden of work on housemaids remains unappreciated and overlooked” - Photo: Mosfiqur Rahman Johan

Second, as all my family members have been sharing the burden of daily tasks, it is quite interesting and refreshing to see that traditional gender roles (speaking in Bangladesh’s context) have blurred. Male members of my family are lending a hand in all household chores — be it cutting vegetables, washing clothes, or mopping the floor. But isolation or quarantine shouldn’t have to force all members of the family to contribute to household work. This is something we, men and women alike, should be doing on a daily basis to the extent that is possible. This self-dependence on housemaids and women in the family when it comes to cooking and cleaning is both regressive and unfair. It also makes me wonder why we, as a society that has purportedly progressed, still do not consider household chores as “work”. There is a need to re-evaluate our discriminatory attitudes towards women who stay at home. Given the fact that household work is unaccounted for in the GDP — as only goods and services bought and sold in the market in exchange for money are accounted for — women’s contribution to the economy through household work remains grossly overlooked and undervalued.

Third, just as we have all likely been overcome with a sense of appreciation for domestic workers, those of us making up the minority in the formal sector should be thankful for the kind of employment we have. The coronavirus pandemic has, once again, laid bare the precarious working conditions of those employed in the informal sector. And given the massive share of the informal sector in our economy — nearly 80% of the labor force — the effects of a pandemic, such as the one we are witnessing right now, on their livelihoods can be far-reaching. In these trying times, the government has taken the positive step of distributing essentials such as rice, oil and lentils in some of the slums in Dhaka city. Although I am sure these initiatives will go a long way in terms of survival for low-income groups, the fact remains that their daily income has taken a huge blow.

I am thankful to those individuals who are doing their part to reduce the misery of the less fortunate. My family and I have made a small contribution to one of these wonderful individuals — whom we came to know about via social media — who has taken it upon himself to distribute essentials such as soap bars, oil and salt, among other things, to daily wage earners every two days. Those of us who have the luxury of internet access should highlight such initiatives and spread the message far and wide so that more individuals are motivated to do their part and help in any way they can — financially or otherwise. We must remember that it is our moral imperative to come together as a society and stand by those most in need.

Nahela Nowshin is a Research Associate at BRAC James P Grant School of Public Health, BRAC University.

BRAC JPG School of Public Health, Bangladesh tackles global health challenges affecting disadvantaged communities through Education Training Research & Advocacy