Gender equality has ‘taken a big step back’ during Covid-19

Forum hears women are taking on burden of caring in professional and personal capacity

Covid-19 pandemic: The online conference heard that healthcare workers ‘cannot face into a fourth wave’. File photograph: The Irish Times

Covid-19 pandemic: The online conference heard that healthcare workers ‘cannot face into a fourth wave’. File photograph: The Irish Times

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Gender equality has “taken a big step back” during the Covid-19 pandemic with vulnerable women being treated “badly” during the health crisis, Irish doctors, psychologists and academics have heard.

Women are taking on the burden of caring duties professionally and personally during the pandemic and “cannot face into a fourth wave” of restrictions, healthcare workers warned on Wednesday during the Independent Scientific Advocacy Group’s women’s perspectives on the Covid-19 pandemic online discussion.

Sharon Lambert, lecturer in applied psychology at University College Cork, said the majority of “essential, day-to-day jobs” which keep society functioning, such as teaching and caring roles, are occupied by women while 76 per cent of healthcare workers are women. These female healthcare workers are “disproportionately impacted” by the spread of the virus with many developing long Covid, said Dr Lambert.

“Women’s voices have very clearly said they cannot face into a fourth wave of this,” Dr Lambert told the online gathering. “It’s unsustainable what’s going on. This burden of care that’s falling on women coupled with the burden of care in their working professional lives. Gender equality has taken a big step back in the last year.”

Dr Lambert said based on the experiences of those who worked during the Sars pandemic, many healthcare workers would go on to suffer “anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder” once this crisis has passed.

Gabrielle Colleran, head of radiology at the National Maternity Hospital, underlined the additional challenges faced by healthcare workers who must homeschool children when they arrive home after a long work shift, saying lack of supports for parents in this situation has “really damaged morale in the health service. We really feel quite abandoned by the State at exactly the time, until we were vaccinated, when we went to work every day knowing we were at risk of getting sick ourselves.”

Dr Colleran warned of an “exodus” of healthcare staff abroad or into different careers unless significant efforts were made to support and make resources available to healthcare workers.

“Our hospitals aren’t fit for modern infection control . . . we need modern hospitals for modern infection control. And that has to be tackled if we are to retain staff and if we are to provide 21st century healthcare.”

How are the poor faring?

Clíona Ní Cheallaigh, infectious diseases and internal medicine physician at St James’s Hospital in Dublin, said women from marginalised groups, such as the Travelling community and homeless communities, had been particularly affected by the pandemic and that the virus has a “disproportionate effect” on people who are poor. Social exclusion affects women more than men and the State is treating “excluded women really badly during Covid”, said Dr Ní Cheallaigh.

Fine Gael MEP Frances Fitzgerald, whose report on the gender perspective of the Covid-19 crisis was adopted by the European Parliament last month, said there was not enough public awareness or discussion around how women are affected by the pandemic.

Ms Fitzgerald underlined that working from home was “not a substitute for childcare” and that supports for parents should be a central part of the recovery from the pandemic.