A salute to the women who are at the forefront during this pandemic

As leaders, primary caregivers, in healthcare, and as rural health workers, women have been playing an important role during the pandemic.
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If addressing the pandemic were war, then our women are coming out as warriors!

I would like to think of the COVID-19 virus as an equal opportunity one. For once, there is something that hit us all equally, not discriminating. It hit us in a way that the regular differences of gender, race, caste, class have all become null and void. Of course, I’m not equating the suffering of all, nor am I ignoring the fact that some have the privilege to access healthcare, and some don’t even have the option for a test. In fact, I understand while the attack is uniform, the repercussions are felt by different people differently – some far more intensely than the other.

The virus sees no differences. From a gender lens, women and men can get the virus equally and so can all my friends among the LGBTQ community. For once, we are not taking stock of data of active cases or death toll with a count of women, men and queer people. The toll is about people. Yes, women and queer people tend to suffer more, this was not the plan of the virus.

Being a feminist and someone who works with cis women and girls, I can’t but help think about the way my sisterhood has responded to this pandemic… and how.

Women and the pandemic

Crisis and conflict usually affect the vulnerable the most. So, it becomes imperative that women are part of all the solutions, plans and decisions made to address this pandemic. There were several media outlets including Thomson Reuters Foundation that spoke about the infamous picture posted on Twitter on March 1 by the US VP Mike Pence of a boardroom full of important people taking big bold decisions on ways to tackle the virus. This was a room full of men!

Like many people who raised eyebrows to say what kind of decisions will be holistic when the opinions are going to be with a single dimension, I want to take this argument one step further. How can we even think that this is the room that brought solutions, when actually if you look around our lives and around the globe, we will see women leading the way in every single aspect taking the virus head-on. So then, why are we not acknowledged enough?

How is this different?

The pandemic and the lockdown have made me realise that the double-shift that most women anyway put in has only tripled. Women are working from home, answering calls, attending meetings and proving their worth all the time, apart from running the home full-time, caring for children and looking after family. A regular working woman ends up working the entire day with weekends blurring and workdays extending to late evenings and nights. Single mothers have it harder, with no one to go to, for respite along with the burden of pay cuts and childcare.

Through this piece I would like to analyse how women have come out as warriors in the battle against COVID-19. We have proven once again that there is nothing we can’t do well and many things even better!

Women in healthcare

India has over three million nurses of whom almost 90 percent are women according to the GoI. They are the frontline staff who address healthcare directly with the patient. They are in contact with the patient constantly and nurse them to health in most cases. Globally too, women make 70 percent of the frontline health workforce and 25 percent of the leadership in healthcare. Incidentally, the Government (National health Portal) has declared 2020 to be the Year of Nurses and Midwives, all of whom are women.

During this crisis, this workforce has been the most critical. They have abandoned any fear of self and family and taken on the role of saving the country.

Primary caregivers

At home too, the primary caregivers are women. Apart from the regular chores, whether in sickness or in health, the woman in the house is responsible for the family. Things are no different during the pandemic. I was very surprised to see how this group has been marginalized when it comes to testing for the virus. I would like to quote a friend in an organisation working in Nuh in Haryana. There are several positive cases there but not a single woman affected. The reason is not because women are healthier, but because they simply haven’t had access to testing. I find it impossible to believe that the women caregivers wouldn’t have contracted the virus themselves. How are they coping, what are they doing is a question to be asked.

Captain Marvel – crisis management

Seven countries have done exceptionally well in the pandemic. These are Germany, Taiwan, New Zealand, Iceland, Finland, Norway and Denmark. What is the commonality here? These countries are all being led by women! Yes, that’s true. If you analyse the COVID-19 journey of each of these countries (Forbes), you will realise the approach in each one by their leaders is different, but they all come from the space of empathy, seriousness and spirit of innovation. In some sense they are able to demonstrate the same sense of “I will handle it, no matter what” attitude my mum has when I catch a bug!

All these seven countries have had the lowest deaths, proving that women’s style of leadership is effective for crisis management too. And we often associate leadership with aggression, loudness and masculinity. work twice as hard and twice as much as a man to get paid half!

Closer home too, there are three women who have risen above many in this fight against the coronavirus. They are Preeti Sudan, Secretary of MoHFW; Beela Rajesh, health secretary Tamil Nadu; Priya Abraham, who isolated the virus, is the Head of National Institute of Virology, Pune, Dr Nivedita Gupta, Senior scientist at ICMR; Dr Renu Swarup, Direct DBT, and FM Nirmala Sitharaman, COVID-19 Economic Response Task Force.

It is time to urge governments to place women at the centre of the Covid 19 response and take cue from women leadership on the issue and act, instead of delaying, denying, and not delivering.

Unsung heroes – rural health workers

The largest force of health workers in rural India are the ASHAs (Accredited Social Health Activists), ANMs (Auxillary Nurse Midwives) and anganwadi workers. They are not just fighting nutrition and health needs of women and children but also are front ending the battle too. They are going door-to-door to record people’s travel history, check temperature and are also involved in contact tracing!.

Between ASHAs and Anganwadi workers we have about 2.4 million women doing the most important jobs in rural India on COVID-19 response (government data). These women are going about their work with rigor, not working from home as the rest of us are, putting theirs and their families lives in danger and yet, remain unsung heroes in this fight against the deadly virus.

Women have contributed disproportionately, whether in care or in suffering in this pandemic. They are also going to experience a disproportionate economic fallout in all spheres. Corporates will find it easier to do away with women, sex workers will lose their livelihoods and risk their health, the queer community will get deeper into stigmatisation, women’s collectives and self-help groups will take time to regroup, garment factory workers, largely women, will be rendered jobless, frontline health workers may contract the virus with no social protection and mothers will be overworked and under-cared for and the largest part of women in rural India will not even be tested for.

We can either continue the movement talking about newer forms of marginalisation, or we can ensure we demand solutions are thought through with a gender lens and emerge stronger.

(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of YourStory.)

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