20 Apr Let’s talk about how Covid-19 impacts women differently.
This week is national women’s health week and a timely reminder for all women to focus on their health. We spend so much time caring for others, our spouses and children that we often neglect ourselves, delaying an appointment, making excuses; “I’ll do it next week” “I don’t have time” “I’m too busy”. We will avoid getting the “dreaded” cervical screening test done or will delay getting a mammogram or even just put off having a basic health check with our GPs.
But who is caring for the health of women at the frontline? Women make up the majority of our healthcare and social assistance workforce, 79.9 % of our healthcare workers are women.
It then should be no surprise that COVID-19 impacts women differently than men, I’m not only talking physiologically, we know infections are higher in men, but in many other aspects as well. Women in our society shoulder a burden of caregiving within and outside the home. Most caregiving roles provided by women include nursing care, child care and aged care support. Globally women represent 70% of the healthcare workforce. In Australia 89.3 % of our nursing workforce are women. This puts women by default at a higher risk of contracting SARS-CoV-2 due to the close proximity to patients or in the environment’s in which they work. This has already been proven internationally, in the US, the Centres for disease control reports that as of April 2020 73% of the healthcare workers who tested positive for COVID-19 were women.
Despite the high risk they face these women still front up to work and it is important and essential work they do. I’m sure anyone who has ever been admitted to hospital knows just how important those caring for you are when your weak, sick and vulnerable. I know as a doctor we are often in and out of the room as quick as we can as we have enormous workloads and lists of patients to get through. It’s the nurses you see more of, the personal services staff (PSAs) who bring your food, it’s these people that are providing vital care and are in close proximity to patients putting them at higher risk of contracting SARS-CoV-2. It’s these people that are the backbones of our health systems. PSAs have to clean and disinfect surfaces, clinical rooms, bring food trolleys, transport linen and are also at higher risk because of this type of work. These are difficult, tiring and often at times thankless jobs.
Even though women play a significant role in the healthcare sector women as a whole are being impacted differently during this pandemic. Even though this is 2020 more women than men still shoulder the responsibility in most households as primary carers. With widespread school closures, many women have struggled to juggle working from home and somehow simultaneously home-school their children. They may face greater challenges if they cannot engage in telework and face a higher risk of unemployment and diminished job security.
What this pandemic has highlighted to us all is just how important the health and social assistance workforce is and that it is dominated by women. I’m hoping some of the lessons learned will mean a review for how these important workers are cared for beyond this and even in real time. We really need to reflect as a society why work that involves caring for others is not seen as important enough to warrant decent and fair remuneration and working conditions. I don’t think it’s as complicated as policy makers present it, what is needed at the minimum is fair pay, flexible workings conditions for women with children and a safe and respectful working environment. It’s the least we can do for people that care for us and our loved ones.