The predominantly female healthcare workforce cannot face a potential fourth wave of coronavirus and must be given additional supports, a new women’s group has said.
The Covid Women’s Voices group, comprising a diverse range of healthcare workers, teachers, academics, lawyers and others, has issued an open letter calling for the provision of free childcare for healthcare workers during Level 5 restrictions. In-person schooling for a select group of essential workers, including the predominantly female teaching cohort, must also be facilitated, it says. The group of about 120 women also urges the implementation of “special protections’’ for care workers living in direct provision.
According to Eurostat, 78 per cent of healthcare workers in the European Union are women, while the 2016 census shows women make up six in 10 carers. The demographics are reflected too in data from the Health Protection Surveillance Centre, which shows women represent 77 per cent of Covid-19 cases among healthcare workers.
Considering this, the group says it is “inconceivable” that women’s voices are not being sufficiently heard on critical public health issues during the pandemic.
“Women working in healthcare can no longer take the strain of carrying the burden of providing essential medical services in the absence of childcare, whilst supervising homeschooling and caring for vulnerable family members at home,” the letter goes on.
Dr Aoife Mullally, a consultant in obstetrics and gynaecology at Coombe hospital, said the difficulties and anxieties of frontline work are compounded each time the schools close. As a single mother to two children, Dr Mullally has had to pay for a full-time childminder during the lockdowns.
“It has been a very difficult year... My childcare expenses went up, absolutely, and that would be the same for everybody in healthcare,” she said.
Working from home or taking annual leave is not an option for healthcare workers like her during the grips of a Covid-19 wave, she said.
“You have a responsibility to your patients… But it is a worry when your children are off school and they cannot see their friends. They are completely emotionally dependent on you because they don’t have anyone else,” she said.
Dr Mullally feels let down that in-person schooling for children of frontline workers has not been achieved in Ireland.
“I think it is a pity that we haven’t been able to think outside the box here and do something similar to the UK. It would be great to be able to see a bit more creative thinking in terms of childcare for frontline workers,” she said.
Consultant paediatrician Dr Niamh Lynch said many in the group have been questioning whether the experiences of women have been sufficiently considered during the making of public health decisions. Dr Lynch believes men’s views could be over-represented, while there is insufficient input from the “young nurse who is sweating in PPE [personal protective equipment] for a 12-hour shift”. As a result, GAA and greyhound racing appear to be prioritised over provisions that would be of particular benefit to women, she said.
“A lot of us women were asking ‘why was this decision made?’” she added.
The point of the letter is “not to be hard on men”, Dr Lynch stressed, but to serve as a “gentle reminder that women are here too and we are doing an awful lot of the heavy lifting”.
The provision of free childcare for frontline workers would be a “very significant gesture” that would support women and show appreciation for the outsized role they have played throughout the pandemic, Dr Lynch said.
“Working in a healthcare environment has always been stressful and difficult. Put a pandemic on top of a system where workers are already overworked and overburdened and the cracks will show. Our real concern is that many of our numbers will fall in the trenches and burn out,” she added.
Dr Sharon Lambert, a psychologist and lecturer at University College Cork, agrees that there seems to be a lack of consideration given to the “practical effects” of certain restrictions on the day-to-day lives of women.
“I can go out and buy a bottle of vodka but I cannot go out and buy shoes for my children,” she said. Many single mothers and women on low incomes, including some healthcare workers or cleaning staff in hospitals, cannot afford children’s shoes available through click-and-collect, she added.
“You look at that and ask ‘where is the equity there?’ I think that is a problem of not understanding the basics of the day-to-day lives of women,” she said.
As an academic Dr Lambert is also concerned by the drop in research papers submitted by women during the pandemic. According to research published in the Lancet medical journal in June 2020, the number of female authors of medical papers dropped by 14 per cent during the early stages of Covid-19. In Dr Lambert’s view, this can be put down to the fact women tend to take on more of the burdens of caring for children and other dependent family members.
The group is also urging “significant, targeted resources” be utilised to avoid a fourth lockdown that would contribute once again to the increasing financial and emotional strains placed on the population and in particular healthcare workers.
Dr Mullally said the prospect of a fourth lockdown and a third period of school closures is “unthinkable”.
She added: “I am using every resource available to me at the moment… I actually just couldn’t do it and I am not sure my children could do it either.”