Leading the Fight Against Covid-19 - 'Essential' yet undervalued
There’s been a lot of debate around the Covid-19 Pandemic, and everyone seems to have an opinion on what is the best way forward. But if there’s one thing everyone agrees on - it’s that this global crisis has turned everything we know on its head. One of the biggest hit aspects has been the economy. With more and more countries facing increasingly harsh lockdown measures, governments have had to define what “essential” businesses can remain open and who are the “essential” workers that will still go out amidst this increasing panic to fight against the effects of this crisis.
And despite all our reverence for big shot CEOs and fancy celebrities who we revere, it turns out they’re not “essential” after all. Most countries have defined essential workers to include, medical staff, hospital workers, grocery store employees and care workers. Many of these categories include jobs that are underpaid, and undervalued both monetarily and in public opinion. Not surprisingly, the gender dynamics in most of these categories are also heavily skewed, which is why we wanted to highlight the efforts of all those on the frontline who despite being undervalued for so long are now fighting every day to keep us safe.
The first group that comes to mind given the nature of the crisis is healthcare workers.Efforts have been made around the world to appreciate healthcare workers and many have families who are speaking out about the hardships their loved ones go through every day - urging members of the public to stay at home and “flatten the curve” as those on the frontline risk their lives every day. A US survey showed that more than 76% of hospital employees are women as well as more than 88% of home health care workers. However, only 43% of executives in hospital systems are women, showing that in the climb to the top - women lose out significantly. Amidst the current situation, when Wuhan reached the peak of its crisis - a majority of the 40,000 medical workers sent in to help were female - many of whom also shaved their heads in an effort to prevent the spread of the disease as they faced PPE shortages. While this may seem like a small sacrifice to some compared to others, it’s important to understand just how big individual sacrifices can be in these times of anxiety and uncertainty. It also highlights a small example of the undue pressures this crisis has put on women as well.
It’s also important to differentiate within groups of women that may face other barriers due to factors such as class, social status and often nationality. In the UK, 97,000 women from overseas are employed in the NHS. The importance of these workers, at a time when Britain has made a historical political decision based on voters wanting to see lesser migrants in the country cannot be understated. The same goes for care workers and grocery store workers. Not only are these jobs often underpaid - they are also occupied by a majority of migrant workers who face the brunt of society’s discrimination.
Amidst this new found importance for a group of people we ignored for so long, where does Pakistan fit in. As a country that has consistently struggled with its healthcare provisions and with a large majority of its population dependent on daily wages - this crisis will have long-lasting effects for us as a whole. But there’s another aspect that comes into play. For so long - our society has existed based upon strict gender roles that fit men and women into certain job descriptions. Men as doctors and women as nurses. Men as breadwinners and women as housewives. The jobs that men were fit into have also always been given a superior status. But now that these jobs have temporarily ceased to exist - what will happen?
One can only hope that we come out of this with a fresh perspective on the contribution of women in our society. In so many households, women in the region are now burdened with the extra responsibility of not just managing their household duties - but doing so at a time where their mental and physical health may be much weaker. Women also make up a majority of domestic workers in order to provide enough income to run their households. Many of them will lose their jobs as well and some will have to face the additional burden of being stuck at home in abusive households with no escape. On an individual level - it seems it will now be the ‘homemakers’ and ‘housewives’ who have battled countless questions like “tum karti hee kya ho” - who will now perhaps be the most equipped to lead their families into a mentally and physically exhausting battle that will last much longer than we could have imagined. So as we clap for our healthcare workers and doctors and nurses - who deserve it more than ever - take a moment to remind yourself of the women that have gone unappreciated for so long.