Almost 12 million people have contracted the COVID-19 virus. As the whole world struggles with the pandemic, its long-term effects are slowly making themselves known. Economies are suffering from major losses, health care systems are collapsing, and over four billion people from almost 100 countries from all around the globe are staying locked inside their homes. It’s a level of crisis that remains incomparable, not even in history.
The thing is, although the number of female workers considered essential during this pandemic is equal, or even larger than, the number of male workers, the majority of all media stories we see broadcasted is still centered on men.
For centuries, women have always been disproportionately affected not just by societal issues, but also by crises, health or otherwise. It is evident that even during this COVID-19 pandemic, women are still getting the short end of the stick. This is especially true for women who are risking their lives but barely receive any acknowledgment from the very people they’re risking their lives for.
There’s a lot to unpack when it comes to the unequal effects of the pandemic on women, but today, we’ll discuss a specific point. Namely, the millions of women who are directly affected by the pandemic: female frontline workers.
The term ‘frontliner’ refers to people who are tasked to serve at the front lines in this battle to fight COVID-19. This includes medical workers like nurses, doctors, and specialists as well as essential personnel like sanitation workers, pharmacy employees, and supermarket employees.
According to a study conducted by the American Community Survey back in 2014, 52% of all 48.7 million essential workers are women. During this crisis, however, the Center for Economic Policy and Research found out that the percentage of women working at the actual front lines is a whopping 64.4% of all workers.
Based on the study, women comprise 76.8% of all healthcare workers while female childcare and social service workers are at 85.2%. Women also make up the majority of pharmacy technicians (81.6%), cashiers (71.8%), fast food and counter workers (67%), customer service representatives (63.7%), and retail salespersons (63.5%).
Sadly, although women outnumber men in the front lines, they’re still receiving less recognition and compensation that their male counterparts.
In India, over 900,000 female health workers are risking their lives to go door-to-door in their towns, in order to educate people about the effects of COVID-19 and to help them monitor symptoms in possible cases. Due to the shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) in the country, they’re not even given any form of protection, be it face masks, face shields, or hand sanitizer. Some women are improvising by using a scarf to cover their faces while talking to their assigned residents.
Worse, these women only receive measly 1000 rupees ($13) per month for this crucial and potentially hazardous job.
In Malaysia, female healthcare workers have no choice but to go through 36-hour-duties before they’re allowed to come home. Since PPEs take so long to wear and remove, many women have opted to cut their hair short so that it dries easily after showering. And if they happen to encounter a confirmed COVID-19 patient, they’re required to be quarantined for two weeks, which means they won’t get to go home and see their children.
Despite all their hardships, Malaysian women still fighting for equal pay and equal recognition in society, something that they find hard to achieve during this pandemic.
In Thailand, women working outside the medical industry are also doing their best in this fight against COVID-19. One immigration officer named Natawan Pinto shared her experience working during the pandemic. Since the immigration officers are some of the first people tourists encounter upon arrival to a new country, they’re required to be fully protected at all times, as well as sanitize everything before and after talking to a tourist. They also can’t go home to their families without going through a 14-day quarantine. On top of all this, Natawan was forced to take a pay cut of 30%. She also hasn’t received any overtime pay since March.
Another female frontliner, Parinya Sirirattanapanya, works as a food delivery worker in Bangkok. Parinya receives fewer orders now, meaning her income isn’t the same as it used to be before the pandemic. She also has to make sure that she stays extra protected for her children left at home. Considering that she has to pay for all her protective equipment out of pocket, she isn’t left with a lot of money to support her family during the crisis.
Female frontliners from Asia are certainly having a difficult time right now, but truth be told, female frontliners from the West aren’t faring much better either.
In Canada, female workers receive 30% less income than male workers. Since many female workers are also part of the frontline industries, these women are also facing an increased risk of contracting the virus. Not to mention, due to their role as the primary caregiver within their family, they’re also running the risk of spreading the virus to their families if they ever contract it.
In Italy, where the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases surpassed even that of China’s where the virus first started in January, female frontline workers are already suffering heavily from intense work-related stress. Because of their hazmat suits, they typically aren’t able to drink water or go to the bathroom for up to 12 hours. Many workers have already been infected themselves after getting exposed to positive patients, and as many as 50 doctors have already ended up succumbing to the virus.
In fact, the extreme conditions that frontliners are forced to endure have already driven two nurses to commit suicide, according to the head of Italy’s hospital doctors’ union, Carlo Palermo. He describes their current situation as an “indescribable condition of stress,” stating that it’s “unbearable.”
In the United States, the shortage of PPE is putting a strain on frontliners as well. The National Nurses United, which consists mostly of female members, has been pushing since April for the government to provide more protective equipment to all workers assigned to the front lines. This includes essential workers in pharmacies, supermarkets, and food-service.
Frontliners, especially health workers, are facing a considerable amount of mental stress during this pandemic. Although health workers are trained to handle these situations, no healthcare system in the world was designed to accommodate hundreds of thousands of patients all at once. The unprecedented workload is taking a toll on everybody, especially those in the most vulnerable positions.
For female frontline workers, the effects can be double or even triple. Not only are they overworked and underprotected, but they also tend to be underpaid. Mothers who work on the front lines typically still have children to care for, apart from their patients in the hospital. Since these workers are risking exposure to the virus, for many of them, it can take days or even weeks before they can come home safely to their children. And sadly, they have no choice but to repeat the cycle for as long as this global health crisis lasts.
Many of us seem to forget that they’re only human too – they also feel sadness and pain when they lose one of their patients to the virus. If they get exposed to a confirmed case, they also become fearful that they might contract the virus themselves and spread it to their loved ones.
The COVID-19 pandemic is still affecting more and more lives every day. The worst thing about it is that there’s no end in sight yet.
For now, all we can do in this fight against the COVID-19 is to support frontline workers as much as we can, emotionally, mentally, and financially. We can donate to groups and organizations that are focused on providing their needs, be it protective equipment, sustenance, or anything that can help them during these troubled times.
Aside from that, we can also support causes that aim to give women equal compensation and recognition for their efforts in battling this global pandemic. By joining this fight against the COVID-19, we can let women’s voices finally be heard.