JENNIFER, a registered nurse at a public hospital in Kingston, has not gone home to her elderly mother and teenage daughter in three weeks. She now boards with other nurses — a living arrangement she will continue until the COVID-19 pandemic subsides. With her child’s father in the United States, she is not sure how her daughter is performing academically with online classes since schools have been closed, and her mother does not understand technology. Though she does not interact directly with COVID-19 patients, some of her colleagues do. The fear of carrying home the virus keeps her away from her family.
“Even if you’re not personally in the COVID zone, as a health care worker everybody is doing double and triple duty, and you don’t feel protected,” she confided in All Woman.
“And top off all that with having to stress over my daughter who has behavioural issues, and who probably does not even get to go to Grade 10. I don’t even have help to say, daddy, you take over.”
Another nurse, who opted not to share a name, is in a similar predicament.
“I moved out to lessen the risk for my mom who has underlying conditions that could be detrimental if she were to contract the virus,” she shared, sighing heavily. “I wouldn’t be able to live with knowing that I was the cause of her getting sick. But at the same time I’d like to be there for her. It’s a sticky situation.”
While the novel coronavirus is not selective about who it infects, women stand to be disproportionately affected by its social and economic implications.
For starters, women make up about 70 per cent of workers in the health and social care sector, according to the World Health Organization. In addition, women perform more than three times the amount of unpaid care work — caring for the children, sick, and elderly in the families across the world, as per the International Labour Organization.
Locally, even while the infection rate of the virus is still fairly low when compared to other territories, it is already causing a burden on our health sector — a burden that is being carried mainly by women.
A female doctor practising at a public hospital shared that, “I’m afraid that my family could be at risk because of my job, and I’m not confident that we are adequately protected. I’ve had to make sure that I’m very careful and take the necessary precautions against possibly infecting myself and others.”
Another doctor shared that she is relieved that she lives away from her husband temporarily, but even she is becoming fearful.
“Thinking about it, I can feel the fear mounting and I don’t even have kids, so let us just imagine those who actually have kids,” she reasoned. “One can’t be too confident that they are adequately protected dealing with such a contagious virus.”
The fear of contracting and transmitting the virus is only a part of the burden. Nurses have been working overtime to deal with the influx at hospitals, and have also had to deal with discrimination from the same population for which they are caring.
“I’m not afraid of the virus and I am not directly affected by it right now because I work with the babies, but it still affects me. I now have to work longer hours because of the curfew,” a nurse who works at a St Catherine hospital shared. “I would normally go to work from 10 in the night to seven in the morning, but now I have to work from 7:00 pm to 7:00 am to beat the curfew. Also, if it should get worse I know that I will have to be on the front line at some point.”
This nurse, who is not sure whether she will be paid for the additional hours worked, charters a taxi to take her in and out of her community daily — a financial burden she will bear until the attitudes of taxi operators and other users of public transportation improve.
“For example, this morning after I left my 12-hour shift I went to the supermarket to try to get a few things. A woman who was about to cash some items saw me approaching and she sneered at me, before changing her mind completely, mumbled something to the cashier about not wanting to be near me, and walked all the way around to the other side. While social distancing is good, it makes no sense they scorn us because if they should get sick, even if it’s not by COVID, we are the ones who will be taking care of them.”
Dr Natasha Kay Mortley, lecturer and research specialist at the Institute for Gender and Development Studies at The University of the West Indies, Mona, anticipates that besides the risks of contracting the virus, our female health care workers will be physically and mentally exhausted.
“I know from my own research with nurses that they are very resilient and resourceful, but the uncertainties associated with this pandemic can create anxiety and fear,” she said. “PAHO reports that nurses provide about 70 per cent of health care, which means they are the first line of contact as well as front line. They are seeing it all and experiencing it all. They sometimes have to deal with abuse from patients and families of patients who are frustrated with the health care system. This, coupled with public discrimination, can be emotionally draining and really demotivating.”
She also spoke about the breakdown in families that can occur with women on the front line of the crisis.
“Physical distancing to avoid infecting family members, especially elderly family members, means separation and probably depression. Young children not having their usual ‘mommy time’ can become confused. Older children left at home to their own devices are put in vulnerable situations,” she said.
“Almost half of households in Jamaica are female-headed, so some of these female health care workers have no choice but to go home to take care of those who depend on them. So family members face health risks themselves and other social risks.”
President of the Nurses Association of Jamaica, Carmen Johnson, said the majority of the 4,000 plus nurses in the public sector (including midwives) are mentally prepared for war.
“Most of our members, maybe about 60 to 70 per cent, are in a good mental state,” she said on Thursday. “They are fully ready and understand their role and responsibility as it relates to the COVID crisis and they have prepared themselves mentally and physically.
“But we still have the 30 to 40 per cent who are still very fearful and not certain what will happen, because, as you can understand, it’s a new condition and daily we are hearing about new ways in which it operates,” she added.
Johnson concurred that the nurses, of which 96 per cent are women, are deeply concerned about their own families at this time.
“Some of them participate in the care of the [COVID-19] patients and continue to work in the facilities and wards where they are, and they are highly concerned about their own family members. For those nurses, where accommodation is possible, then we arrange for that,” she said.
She added: “Most of them are mothers and fathers, and what you will find is that some of my nurses are single parents, or they are the major breadwinners, so it’s a big concern for them in terms of how they will manage if they should get it. Because of that, they are still apprehensive.”
Infrastructurally, Johnson is hopeful that the sector can soon become 100 per cent prepared to handle the virus should it escalate locally.
“I think the public health sector is about 60 to 70 per cent prepared. I’m hoping we will get there, because we still have some facilities that are in the process of identifying their isolation areas, or are working on getting their areas prepared,” she said. “We are aware of the shortfall in equipment within our facilities. We do have some personal protective equipment now, and we do hope that whatever is being procured will come in, so that at no point in time we will be left vulnerable while working.”
Johnson urged communities to rally around the health care workers, as well as each other, while we war against the pandemic.
“This is an invisible enemy so we have to bond together while practising physical distancing, and we have to put that love forward so everybody can feel it, and we can win the war against COVID-19. We are here to serve our people and our aim as health care workers is to fight this health war,” she said.
Dr Mortley added that Jamaicans can all play our part to support our women on the front line.
“A simple thank you, or a sign of appreciation can go a long way,” she encouraged. “We can do our part, too, by staying home, following the advice of the experts to avoid things getting worse, and putting greater strain on the health care system. Female health care workers need support from their communities, extended family, their male partners, and neighbours who can provide support on the home front. Our female health care workers need care too.”