Ordinary People Doing Extraordinary Things: Eldercare in Wuhan under COVID-19

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When the pernicious effects of COVID-19 manifested clearly first in Wuhan, the entire city and the whole of Hubei Province came to a standstill. The lockdown of Wuhan brought unprecedented suffering and life-threatening challenges for millions of people resident in that first epicenter. Now, COVID-19 poses those same challenges to people and healthcare systems globally. Specifically, it tests our collective efforts to care for one another, especially the most vulnerable among us. 

The primary research site for my doctoral dissertation is located in downtown Wuhan, Sunlight Nursing Home. Since lockdown, Sunlight has strictly isolated itself from the outside world: family visits were suspended, elderly residents were confined to their multi-bed rooms, and all of the direct care workers were confined with their elderly charges within the wards where they had been working. I write now about the roles played by care workers in sustaining the lives of the elderly throughout that crisis, and who, though fearful themselves, nevertheless stay 24/7 within the confines of their wards to provide essential care. 

Care manager Chang, the woman in charge of the care workers among whom I conducted my fieldwork, directed the transformation of her ward into an autonomous sealed-off unit of care. The entrance to her floor is strictly-guarded; only essential deliveries have been allowed, such as food and laundry. Since nobody can enter or leave the building, the canteen for the elderly was turned into a sleeping area for care workers. Though many care workers have their own family to attend to, they put that part of their life into the hands of others. Care worker Lin, whose husband passed away at the onset of the pandemic, didn’t have time to fully mourn his death due to chronic understaffing at Sunlight. She returned to work immediately after the funeral, despite knowing that she no longer needed to work at Sunlight to cover her husband’s medical expenses. Lin’s return says much about her commitment to her profession, to her coworkers, and to the elderly she had come to know so well. My research with care workers suggests that it is emotional involvement and a sense of responsibility that motivates them to remain long term in care work. This is borne out in this current pandemic. 

Care work in China is often perceived as being dirty and undesirable, due largely to its close link to the graphic care required by frail, older bodies. Chinese care workers are mostly rural to urban migrants or urban workers laid off from former state-owned factories. Still, direct care is complex. But its complexity goes unrecognized, or even ignored by institutional forces which prioritize profits and objectify the elderly as bodies to work on, to the neglect of their social-emotional needs. As is true with Sunlight, things which would normally undermine the interest of care workers, such as the lack of institutional recognition for their emotion work, are put on hold. Care practitioners are now focused on a common goal: guaranteeing the welfare of the elderly. COVID-19 compels care workers to focus on what kind of care is needed and how to provide that care. It serves as a filter through which the core values of care are clearly seen. Care is about shared human vulnerability and our inherent interdependence. Care workers at Sunlight, in their collective 24/7 efforts to protect the elderly, embody this ethic through their care. May the reverential respect they hold for the elderly in their care redound on them and all care workers worldwide who are battling this pandemic on the front lines!

My description of eldercare in Wuhan is based on my ongoing communications with the care staff at Sunlight on the floor in which I conducted research. I do not claim that these observations hold for all nursing homes, or even within different wards at Sunlight. The purpose of my writing about the 24/7 lockdown care in this ward is to add to the many examples of what human nature is capable of during challenging times. Like the care workers at Sunlight, frontline workforce in many countries are respecting human life in such a way that we will not be ashamed to tell the next generation the truth about us. I salute those frontline workers who work around the clock to make sure the elderly are properly treated, fed and bathed, not only at Sunlight in Wuhan, but in so many contexts around the global in our collective effort of tackling this pandemic. I look forward to my next trip to Wuhan. The care workers there tell me that they have so much more to share about themselves and about their life of caring. I am honored to be a listener of their extraordinary stories!   

Care workers at Sunlight nursing home during COVID-19

Zhe Yan is a doctoral candidate at University of Würzburg. His research delves into the experiences and social organization of care work in China, focusing on long-term care residential facilities. His research interests include aging and eldercare, and how processes of aging and care are shaped by socio-political conditions.

“The Age of COVID-19” is a series being cross-posted at Somatosphere and the Association for Anthropology, Gerontology and the Life Course (AAGE) blog and is edited by Celeste Pang, Cristina Douglas, Janelle Taylor and Narelle Warren.

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