Global Development Institute Blog

Tanja Bastia, Reader, Global Development Institute

Transnational care takes various forms. People’s abilities to practice transnational care also varies and has, inevitably, been impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic. 

I begin with two vignettes: doña Celia from Santa Cruz, Bolivia and doña Palmira from Cochabamba, Bolivia (names used are pseudonyms). Both have adult children who live abroad. However, their experiences of transnational care could not have been more different. 

Doña Celia was in her late 60s at the time of the interview. She continued to work. She also had an active circle of friends. She was quite close to her two sons who took jobs abroad. In fact, she lived adjacent to one of them, just before he travelled to Peru. She was also very sad when her sons left and had to seek specialised support for depression. However, she got better. She forced herself to go out, seek out her friends she had neglected for a while and when I interviewed her in 2016, she enjoyed playing card twice a week with two different groups of friends, laughing about how bad-mouthed they were when they played and the fact that they would never use such language outside of that circle. She used to visit her two sons regularly and her granddaughters spent time with her over the summer, when they were off school. Their sons used to pay for her private healthcare and her internet connection. They were in communication daily. She had great plans for the future. She had planned to continue working for as long as she can and then to set up a community retirement living with some of her friends, renting a set of flats or a large house and hiring domestic and also nursing help when that’s needed.

Doña Palmira was in her early 80s when I interviewed her. She was not quite mobile. When my research assistant and I visited her, she was eating food that had gone off, her hair was matted and she complained of pain in her legs. Her son, who used to buy things for her and manage her money, had passed away four months before the interviews. Her daughter was in Spain, working as a live-in carer, looking after an 80 year old woman around the clock. She sent remittances regularly, covering the rent and other expenses, but doña Palmira was also looking after two teenage granddaughters (her daughter’s daughters). She had trouble controlling and disciplining them. When we were there, they were refusing to do their homework and wanted to go to basketball practise instead. Doña Palmira asked us to ‘have a word’ with them. Their only help was a neighbour, who picked up remittances and took one of the granddaughters to do the food shop once a week.

These life experiences are part of a project on transnational care practices that seeks to explore the diverse transnational care practices that people engage in when their adult children are abroad, with a view of understanding how the ageing migrants’ parents experience care (or lack of) in transnational spaces. With the help of local researchers, I gathered 101 interviews with migrants’ parents, people over the age of 60 whose adult children were abroad. What became obvious very quickly is that the ability to practice care across transnational spaces varies significantly across rural, urban and peri-urban areas. 

Better off interviewees are generally better able to access communication technology (phones, mobiles, internet) and therefore keep in close and very frequent communication with their adult children and grandchildren abroad. Doña Celia spoke to her son daily via WhatsApp. In contrast, some interviewees in rural areas did not have mobile signal in the valleys where they lived and were only able to speak to their adult children abroad when they went to the towns for the weekly market. Others, who migrated a while ago, spoke of communicating via radio messages.

Better off interviewees, like doña Celia, are also able to access private health care, with annual check-ups, welcoming clinics and specialised care. Others, who do not have the financial means to pay for private health care and had always worked in the informal sector or in subsistence agriculture, generally avoided going to the doctor, unless it was absolutely necessary. A Guaraní man I interviewed in Santa Cruz was given aspirin after suffering from a stroke due to a blood clot. The medical post in the Guaraní territories where he lived did not have any other medicines. So his son, who lived in Santa Cruz, travelled there and brought him back with him to the city, where he was able to access better medical care. 

The types of jobs, countries and migration modes that the adult children had access to also varied significantly across socio-economic strata. Better off families often supported their children’s migrations to seek further education or professional jobs. This meant that they had greater job security and better incomes than those who migrated mostly regionally, for seasonal work in agriculture or informal garment sector work in Brazil or Argentina. 

All of these interviews were finalised before the pandemic struck last year. I, therefore, do not have specific data about how transnational care practices changed during the pandemic. However, one can only imagine how the global imposition of national lockdowns and the curtailment of international travel further exacerbated the already precarious position of some of the migrants’ parents who remained in their countries of origin. 

As we know, everybody has been affected by the pandemic but the ability to ‘stay safe’ and ‘stay at home’ is not equally shared across socio-economic groups. Key workers have had to continue working throughout the pandemic, exposing themselves and their families to significant risks. Others, who relied on public spaces and movement across the city to access their workplace, have been unable to continue working, lost their livelihoods and have had to rely on their social networks or charity to survive. Live-in carers, like doña Palmira’s daughter, have been able to continue working as their jobs did not require a daily commute. However, the high death rates of the older population to Covid19 has meant that many lost their jobs when the person they looked after passed. I wrote about the emotional and financial consequences of this in the pre-pandemic world. However, there is significant evidence of how migrants continued working throughout the pandemic, putting their lives at risk, both to keep serving the people they cared for and also to maintain their only source of livelihood. 

Bergamo, the worst affected region in Italy from Covid19, is one of the main destinations for Bolivian migrants in Europe. About half of all Bolivians residing in Italy live in Bergamo, where they make up about a fifth of the town’s population of 120,000 people. Many work as elderly carers and they continued working during the pandemic. This led to them contracting Covid19, but given that many are undocumented, they avoided going to hospitals and seeking medical care for fear of being deported. They resorted to homemade remedies and hope to get better

Informal reports from Bolivian communities with high levels of outmigration indicate that many migrants lost their jobs and resorted to returning to Bolivia when travels allowed. For many, though, this was not a very straightforward process, as borders closed up, including to the nationals. For example, hundreds of Bolivian citizens were held on the Chilean border in degrading conditions, refused entry to Bolivia last April.

The new immobility regimes will stretch the temporality of the children’s absence to sometimes unknown degrees. As Dora Sampaio has argued, even those families that regularly travelled to visit each other will now be brought into the types of immobility regimes usually associated with undocumented migrants and asylum seekers. Doña Celia, who regularly visited her two sons abroad and also hosted her grandchildren for a longer period of time during school holidays, will not be able to travel, nor host her grandchildren. Her local social life will also be put on hold. She might be able to continue working, moving her business online, but she will suffer from isolation and decreased social contact due to quarantines.

Everybody’s life has been ‘on hold’ this past year and everyone is ‘stuck in place’. More people now rely on the type of transnational care usually practised by families with migrants, because they cannot meet with loved ones, even when they live close by and decide to maintain distance to protect loved ones and minimise the spread of the virus. However, some will be better placed to withstand being ‘stuck in place’.

To return to the two vignettes, while doña Celia’s social life will likely have been curtailed, the types of difficulties that doña Palmira will have suffered are so much harder to bear. If her daughter continued working in Spain, doña Palmira will continue receiving remittances, but she will have experienced serious difficulties having both her granddaughters at home when the school year was cancelled in July 2020 (the school year in Bolivia runs from February to November). Not having attended school, she would not be able to help her granddaughters with homeschooling. They would also struggle to be at home, in a small space with very limited outside space. It is clear then, that even the ability to be ‘on hold’ is not open to everyone, as some people’s situation is so difficult that living in it for a prolonged period of time would lead to significant suffering. 

I would like to thank the Leverhulme Trust, British Academy and the Manchester Institute for Collaborative Research on Ageing for funding this project

Note:  This article gives the views of the author/academic featured and does not represent the views of the Global Development Institute as a whole.