The response to COVID-19 must not be gender blind
The current COVID-19 health emergency and the attempts of entering a phase of a “new normal” continues to raise questions about blind responses to structural gender inequalities and other systemic discrimination. Even though progress has been made, it is not enough.
Publisert: 2020-09-17 Redigert: 2022-05-20
Resolutions adopted at the 73rd World Health Assembly acknowledge the need for gender equity in global health by encouraging:
- The involvement of women in all stages of decision-making processes,
- Including women, who form the majority of frontline health workers, in its list of populations at highest risk and protecting them; and
- Asking member states to implement national action plans that are explicitly gender-responsive as a way of ensuring respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, and to take necessary measures to ensure social protection, protection from financial hardship, and the prevention of insecurity, violence, discrimination, stigmatization, and marginalization.
In her article on World Health Assembly and Gender, Roopa Dhatt mentions three main areas where the gender responsive approach on the COVID-19 response needs action: a) Political will to act in achieving pay justice for female health and social workers; b) Official reports on sex-disaggregated coronavirus data; and c) Ensure that COVID-19 funding is inclusive of women-centred organizations, especially those in the Global South
While global governance takes decisions that will need some time to transform into real national measures to change women healthcare workers’ lives and work, since the start of the pandemic, different forms of violence and harassment have worsened and combined to interfere with women’s work and personal lives, exposing them to physical danger, increased psychological pressure and stress.
One of them is the shortage of PPE. This has a differentiated gender impact, because any available PPE is often distributed hierarchically - the highest qualified doctors are served first, followed by nurses, then hospital administration personnel and lastly cleaners and informal workers. Healthcare workers have been punished for denouncing the lack of PPE or budget cuts to the public healthcare sector and the impact it has on them. Intimidation and silencing are key examples. “No healthcare worker should face being disciplined or fired for speaking the truth,” said Ruth Schubert, a spokesperson for the Washington State Nurses Association. On 21 April 2020, countries reported to WHO that over 35, 000 health workers were infected with COVID-19. The actual number is considered to be significantly higher because of underreporting.
Health workers are at high risk of violence all over the world. Between 8% and 38% of healthcare workers suffer physical violence at some point in their careers. Many more are threatened or exposed to verbal aggression and social stigma because of their work. They are presumed to be carriers of COVID-19. They have been forcibly removed from public transport, rejected in public, removed from their villages and homes. Many women healthcare workers have been victims of domestic violence. A report by the Red Cross and others, posted on 26 May, identified over 200 COVID-19 attacks on healthcare workers.
Violence and harassment also contribute to the decline in working conditions during the pandemic. Research conducted in a general hospital in northern Italy found that 45% of healthcare professionals reported workplace violence. In China, a report alerted that hospital staff, particularly nurses, are encouraged to engage in behavior that compromises occupational health and safety standards, such as wearing adult diapers in lieu of bathroom breaks, foregoing changing sanitary pads or encouraging use of pills to postpone menstruating, foregoing food/drink breaks, lesions on skin from makeshift protective gear, all to maximize their response capacity due to the overwhelming impact COVID-19 is having on the healthcare system.
Unions are responding
PSI (Public Services International) is the voice of millions of women workers in the healthcare sector worldwide. COVID-19 has exposed the dramatic impact that violence and harassment has on women frontline workers, especially those in the healthcare sector. This demonstrates more than ever the critical role of the ILO Convention 190 on Violence and Harassment in the World of Work ratification process. However, at the same time it remains urgent to obtain concrete responses for women at the workplace. In this sense, PSI is working on a specific instrument to deal with cases during the pandemic and beyond.
This article was originally published in iFokus 1/2020 – FOKUS’ magazine about women’s rights and gender equality. See previous editions of iFokus.