COVID-19: Protecting workers in the workplace

Women health workers: Working relentlessly in hospitals and at home

Women globally make up over 70 per cent of workers in health, including those working in care institutions. They are on the front line of the fight against COVID-19. As a result of the pandemic they are facing a double burden: longer shifts at work and additional care work at home.

Editorial | 7 avril 2020
Umberto Cattaneo, Economist, and Emanuela Pozzan, Senior Specialist, Gender Equality and Diversity & ILOAIDS Branch
Women globally make up over 70 per cent of workers in health, including those working in care institutions. They are on the front line of the fight against COVID-19 and these past few weeks have been the worst they have ever seen. As a result of the pandemic they are facing a double burden: longer shifts at work and additional care work at home.

Take Alberta Delle Grazie. She is the Head Nurse of an intensive care unit in a hospital in the North of Italy. Her work entails long hours, night shifts, and a high level of responsibility. “It was already difficult before,” she told me, “but right now, after three weeks of the COVID-19 emergency, we are exhausted, worried and emotionally drained. Many of us have been infected, some have died.”

Alberta has three small kids at home. She sees them only a couple of hours a day after work and when she does it has not been easy. “It is an excruciating agony to put the body of a person in a bag and then go home and pretend all is fine,” she said.

It’s an example of the daily emotional and mental pressures many women (and men) health workers are under.

A medical worker puts a protective mask in Belgium, during a national lockdown to curb the spread of COVID-19.
© Kenzo Tribouillard / AFP
For the almost 100 million female workers in health and care institutions around the world, balancing work and family responsibilities has always been a challenge. The outbreak has shed light on these longstanding gender inequalities. It has also exposed and exacerbated an already existing global care crisis.

In normal circumstances, women perform a daily average of 4 hours and 25 minutes of unpaid care work against 1 hour and 23 minutes for men. The pandemic, along with its associated closure of schools, childcare and other care facilities have heavily increased the daily time spent in unpaid care work.

This is particularly true for female health workers living in single headed households who might have no other option but to care themselves for their children and older parents when returning from work, with the risk of infecting them with COVID-19.

After three weeks of the COVID-19 emergency, we are exhausted, worried and emotionally drained. Many of us have been infected, some have died."

Alberta Delle Grazie, Head Nurse
It is often said that in difficult times, people do things that were unthinkable before. Hence, some governments have taken measures to support workers, particularly those working in sectors involved in the emergency response that are less likely to be able to work from home.

For instance, in Italy a “Babysitter bonus” of up to 1,000 Euros (1104 US$) has been introduced to enable health sector workers to pay for home-based childcare. In Austria, France, Germany and the Netherlands, where childcare facilities and schools have generally been closed, some facilities remain open, with a skeleton staff, to look after the children of essential service workers. Germany has also increased access to childcare benefits for low-income parents, while South Korea has issued vouchers for 2.4 trillion Won (2 billion USD) to low-income households as they shift from child day care to homecare.

More such measures will be necessary if we are to continue helping female health workers face the impossible task of fighting COVID19 and take care of their families at home. But long-term solutions are also needed.

This pandemic has shed light on the importance of paid and unpaid care work. It provides us with a unique opportunity to prioritize investments in the health and care sector. Shortsighted policies on redistributing unpaid care work between women and men, between families and the State are no longer a viable or sustainable option.

If we are to come out of this crisis with more equitable societies, women will need to be fully involved in the rethinking and redesigning of the world of work post-COVID-19.

By Emanuela Pozzan, Senior Specialist, and Umberto Cattaneo, Economist, Gender Equality and Diversity & ILOAIDS Branch