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Female Health Workers and COVID-19: Gender Disparity in a Time of Global Crisis

5 May 2020

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The COVID-19 global pandemic has highlighted many of our societies’ failings, from the lack of resilience of our economies to the prevalence of misinformation, but as the virus continues spreading throughout the world, it has reminded many of the vital importance of the health workforce.

However, this crisis has also put on show the lack of consideration for female health workers. Women represent 70% of workers in the health and social sector worldwide[1] and in the UK around 80% of care workers are female.[2] The majority of frontline nurses, who are the first point of contact for patients infected with COVID-19, are women. They are most often in charge of the day-to-day care of patients, dealing with the loss of lives and putting them at higher risk of being exposed to the virus.

While the world is experiencing a shortage of Personal Protection Equipment (PPE), we forget that most PPE is not designed for women’s body. Protection designed by default for a man’s body puts female health workers at higher risk; on a daily basis women on the frontlines have to deal with poorly fitting face masks and the need to remove their PPE more often during long shifts, for menstrual hygiene. Menstrual hygiene is an often overlooked area of women’s daily lives, especially during a health crisis; with little time on their hands and panic-buying, female health workers have difficulties accessing basic sanitary products.

Sadly, the impact of COVID-19 on female health workers does not stop here, but the pandemic has also heightened many of the gender inequalities that women are facing every day. The crisis clearly shows that the needs of women are still not acknowledged and catered for, not only in the UK but worldwide.

The ‘female load’ and the burden of care is now as problematic as ever; not only female health workers are now working longer shifts but they still have to do three times as much unpaid care work as men,[3] especially as childcare has become more difficult to organise due to the closure of schools worldwide.

Health crisis and outbreaks also divert precious resources from services that women, including female health workers, need every day, including sexual and reproductive health services. In the UK, access to contraception is now even more challenging, with a shortage in self-injectable contraceptive and in daily contraceptive pills.[4] Access to safe abortion might also be an issue for women who are self-isolating or frontline health workers working around the clock. And what about pregnant women working in healthcare? They are included in the ‘vulnerable population’ in the UK and should take extra precautions against the virus,[5] however this guidance has resulted in a lot of pregnant health workers having to battle with their employers for their needs to be accounted for. For pregnant health workers in many countries around the world, protecting their pregnancy will come at the cost of losing invaluable income.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to put our global health systems under incredible pressure, gender equity in the healthcare sector has never been more important. Now is the time to factor gender dimensions in Covid-19 response plans. Now is the time to involve gender experts in response teams and to budget for a dedicated gender-specific response to the crisis.

Female health workers deserve more than a clap, they deserve flexible working arrangements, they deserve women-friendly personal protective equipment and access to menstrual hygiene products, they deserve mental health support. Above all, they deserve to be acknowledged and protected.

Through our new Health Worker Action Fund, we have partnered with the Fraxinus Trust to help reach women and girls who will be disproportionately affected by this pandemic. Click here to find out more.

 

[1] https://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/handle/10665/311314/WHO-HIS-HWF-Gender-WP1-2019.1-eng.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y
[2] https://www.kingsfund.org.uk/projects/time-think-differently/trends-workforce-overview
[3] https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/03/the-coronavirus-fallout-may-be-worse-for-women-than-men-heres-why/
[4] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-51378514
[5] https://www.rcog.org.uk/globalassets/documents/guidelines/2020-03-30-occupational–health–advice–for–employers-and–pregnant-women-during-the-covid-19-pandemic-200409.pdf

This post was written by:

Audrey Arbaud - Grants Officer, THET

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