Pandemic management on the backs of women in Hungary


The corona pandemic has exposed and further exacerbated various built-in inequalities and unsustainable structures of how we organize the economy and social life globally, from seasonal agricultural work to elderly care – and this is also true for gender relations in Hungary.

The increased burden of care

When Prime Minister Orbán announced the closure of schools and child-care facilities and a switch to online-learning on 13 March, over one million Hungarian couples with small children and several hundreds of thousands of single parents were confronted with a huge challenge: besides procuring the necessary technical equipment (hardly to meet in a country where more than half of households only have enough savings to survive for two to three months), child care had to be organized. Not only did kindergartens close – but grandparents and private paid caregivers could also not be counted on.

In mid-April, sociologists Éva Fodor, Anikó Gregor, Júlia Koltai and I carried out a research into the patterns of the division of care labour during corona among Internet-using Hungarians having at least a secondary school education. What we found in this higher-status segment was that indeed, external help to such parents had collapsed: by two-thirds in the case of grandparents, by half with regard to other family members, and by four-fifths in the case of paid help (in comparison to the pre-corona amount). 

Whether parents have been working from a home office or not, all of the day care and assistance to children with home-schooling has placed an increased burden on families and – knowing the prevailing gender care gap – mostly on women. In our study we found that approximately half of the women and one-third of the men worked from home at the time of the research; those who have a degree did this twice as much as those only having a secondary education. Working from a home office, which is always praised as the ultimate solution to the work-life balance for women with small children, has turned out to be more difficult during the pandemic: 24-hour home care and assistance with home-schooling require a greater amount of multi-tasking. While in our research both men and women reported that men stepped in with care work more than before (including household chores and care for elder relatives), women were still five times more likely than men to report that it would help if their partner took on a higher share of household chores and childcare. Two out of 10 men reported a tension between their paid work and family care duties; this share was the double in the case of women.

The existing infrastructure for the care for the elderly and the chronically ill outside the home was also not prepared for the increased burden of the pandemic. Couples therefore found themselves with the extra task of looking after otherwise healthy grandparents (who could previously have been relied on for assistance but who now needed to be cared for, e.g., when it came to shopping). Caring for the elderly who had previously been in need of assistance also became more difficult. One-third of the 1.8 million people aged 65 and over need assistance on a daily basis in their everyday activities in Hungary, but just tens of thousands reside in eldercare homes. (The waiting time to access the very few available places is two to three years). Also, municipal-level assistance structures are under immense pressure now, especially given that carers visiting the elderly could spread the virus themselves; the few families who could afford private, so-called live-in care have had to give that up, given the increased risks of transmission. Families therefore have been able to rely less on external help in caring for the elderly. This burden was even further exacerbated by a governmental measure: before Easter, when there were approximately 800 known infection cases in Hungary, the Minister for Human Resources ordered that within eight days, 36,000 hospital beds (60 % of all capacity) needed to be evacuated in preparation for the worsening of the pandemic. For several days the media were full of reports about devastating family stories - terminal cancer patients or others in need of 24-hour professional care being sent home and putting families in a horrible situation. According to international statistics, a maximum of 25 % of COVID-19 patients need hospital care, so the liberation of 36,000 beds seemed unnecessary in light of the low number of corona cases. In sum, this measure seemed rather irrational and more of a demonstration of the power to act quickly and forcefully than a necessary preparation.

The measure also exposed the care-blind character of governmental politics. The Government treats care work as if it were an inexhaustible, free resource, a bottomless pit, as if care for loved ones were just a matter of the will and of love that families (= women) can endlessly draw on. In fact,  the study I conducted with Anikó Gregor, clearly shows that the tension between paid work and (unpaid) care duties was a main difficulty for Hungarian women even before corona. Measures to contain the spread of the virus thus exacerbated an already difficult situation – and the unnecessary evacuation of the hospitals triggered a crisis in many affected families. This is partly due to the care infrastructure that was already underfunded and understaffed before corona and partly due to the new situation, thanks to the closure of schools and kindergartens and the even more pressing need to care for the elderly and chronically ill.

Women on the labour market

As for the situation on the labour market, at least three aspects need to be mentioned. First, according to the figures of the polling institute IPSOS, already at the beginning of the crisis in March 2020 7 % of the Hungarian working population lost their jobs. The situation is worse among women: as many as 13 % of Hungarian women lost their jobs due to corona. Thus, the first estimates suggest that unlike the 2008/2009 economic crisis, this time it is women who are losing their jobs first in Hungary.

Second, women are overrepresented in the jobs in social services that are now at the forefront of tackling the crisis: education (where from one day to another teachers had to move to online teaching), social care (including elderly care, the institutions of which are, as in other countries, hotbeds of the virus), and obviously the healthcare system. All three are heavily feminised sectors, and now that they are under pressure it has become abundantly clear who is doing these jobs, under what conditions, and with what recognition. In all three sectors, the infrastructure is in a devastating state, the staff are underpaid, and institutionalized dialogue between the Government and these sectors has been abandoned for years. All this explains the huge lack of personnel in these domains – many of whom leave the professions or emigrate west.

A related, third point: the pandemic exposed Western societies’ reliance on Eastern European labour, not only in the case of seasonal workers, whose plight has made international headlines in recent weeks (e.g., in Italy, Great Britain and Germany), but also in care work. Those who can afford to outsource parts of this work rely on lower-class and migrant women. It is this through this 'care drain’ that higher female labour market participation has been achieved in the core countries of the EU. While emigration is still the better option for many Eastern European health care and social care workers, their departure leaves a huge care deficit in their home countries. Despite trade unions’ concerted efforts –  in the sending and the receiving countries – to combat this trend, salaries can be kept low and working hours long in the West as long as migrant women are ready to do the job under such conditions (which are still better than in their home countries). The pandemic, which led to the closure of borders, has severely disrupted supply chains, also in health care and elderly care, leaving Western countries facing an acute care deficit. In Germany, for instance, according to various estimates, by Easter 200,000 - 300,000 elderly people (cared for in nursery homes or in live-in arrangements) had been left without professional care.

Violence against women is escalating

In line with global trends, reported cases of domestic violence have increased during the corona lockdown in Hungary too. In March alone, a one-third increase in cases was reported, according to official sources (women’s organizations’ helplines had already been overloaded prior to corona too). As feminists have repeatedly stressed, violence now is not increasing, but rather escalating in intensity. Women in households where less severe forms of control and coercion were being exercised by the male partner prior to corona are now facing a deterioration of their situation. Their isolation (often a tool of abusers) is made easier; the frustration of being stuck at home and having to face financial stress enhances the chances of violence being committed; and it is even more difficult to seek help outside the household (e.g., a place in one of the very few shelters for domestic abuse victims) for those whose lives are in danger. In light of this, it is even more appalling to see the attitude of the Hungarian Government toward the Istanbul Convention.

Ratification of the Istanbul Convention voted down: Culture war fought on the backs of women

While a social catastrophe is in the making, the Hungarian Government is still keeping up its polarizing discourse – and maybe even because of the catastrophe, in order to distract attention from its erratic crisis management, its new employer-friendly regulations, and its unwillingness to help people who lose their jobs (“there is no free money” according to PM Orbán's social-Darwinist agenda). The latest victim of this culture war is the Council of Europe’s Istanbul Convention, the Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence. The junior coalition party, the Christian Democrats (KDNP), submitted a bill to block its ratification on May 4 and the bill was adopted on May 5 with the argument that ratification of the convention would spread “destructive gender ideology” and “speed up immigration”.

The Istanbul Convention was adopted by the Council of Europe in May 2011; the Fidesz-KDNP government signed it in 2014 but then postponed its ratification, all the while confirming that they were preparing to ratify. In February 2017, the Government changed course and built references to the Convention into its fear-mongering, polarizing narrative by portraying it as another instance of an alleged external threat alongside the alleged threats posed by George Soros, migrants and liberals (for the whole context, see here and here). In this light, the non-ratification of the Convention appears to be more collateral damage than an end in itself. Still, as has been repeatedly called out by feminist scholars and activists, the Government could have the means to establish the necessary infrastructure to help the victims of domestic violence and to prevent further such cases even without ratifying the Convention - but apparently is not too eager to do that.

From the outside it is difficult to judge whether this is about catering to the obsessions of the KDNP or, on the contrary, whether to make the Christian Democrats the ones who can be later blamed for this move while the bigger party (which is really in charge)  still reserves the option to revise its decision. Anyway, opening up this front, far from being urgent in policy terms amidst the pandemic (they could have simply quietly pursued a policy of non-ratification), has allowed the Government to focus public attention on the fault lines that have served them well in the past: Government vs. opposition, the majority vs. minorities, pro- vs. anti-“gender ideology”. The liberal mainstream and the opposition indeed produced predictable reactions, calling the Government misogynist and critiquing it for misrepresenting the definition of gender in the Convention. Indeed, the Convention does not question sexual dimorphism (i.e., that humans are born either male or female), in its definition of gender: ‘the socially-constructed roles, behaviours, activities and attributes that a given society considers appropriate for women and men’. However, gender has indeed become polysemic in recent years in policy-making and in the public discourse in the EU, meaning also in individuals’ felt sense of identity. It is this problematic polysemy – which progressives often either ignore or celebrate – that the right-wing government is now instrumentalizing to its own political ends, on the backs of women.


Proofreading by Gwendolyn Albert.