Blurred boundaries of women’s work amid COVID-19 pandemic

Ritu Agarwal

How does the coronavirus pandemic has affected women’s lives in Wuhan, China, is yet to be revealed in its substantial details. But from the available news reportage, it emerges that women have shouldered far greater professional responsibilities but at the same time experienced severe vulnerabilities as well. In Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak, women worked in all conceivable frontlines of the battle against doctors and nurses’ contagion.

With the surge in cases and increasing demand for healthcare, the nurses find themselves in a difficult situation. This was highly contagious and their working hours spent in the hospital increased daily, as reported by Wang Lin correspondent, China Youth Daily on February 26, 2020. Their life was limited to the walls of hospitals with protective suits and masks on. Their clothing was complemented with adult diapers and protective googles, which left lingering imprints around their eyes.

The twin burden of managing the households and, in many cases caring for small children and elderly parents has blurred the boundaries of women’s work. It is evident that regardless of the nature of work, women contributed significantly with their labor, professional skills, voluntary actions, and selfless dedication. Still, the caretakers were abused in the city.

Women as Frontline Workers

Universally, care work is a feminine duty; the case is the same for China, where most medical staff in China’s hospitals are women. The demand for these women’s services increased with the outbreak of Covid-19, and they were compelled to leave their families behind to work long shifts in the hospitals. It has been reported that more than two hundred central hospital employees were infected, including the vice presidents and the director of nursing. The heads of multiple departments were on life support. The entire orthopedics department had been wiped out, and oncology had lost almost twenty doctors and nurses.

As reported in China Labour Bulletin on March 2020, Guo Qin and her colleagues were exposed to the virus through their work while collecting blood and sputum samples. Even after recovery, they had to return to the hospital due to the shortage of nursing staff.  

Nursing assistants, many of whom are middle-aged rural migrants, are even more at risk than doctors and registered nurses. Another nursing assistant, Chen Cuilan, who had been employed at Wuhan Central Hospital for many years, told Caixin, the Chinese newspaper correspondent, that as soon as she was confirmed with covid-19, she was forced to leave the ward. Initially, they were almost on the streets as Wuhan did not have many quarantine facilities and had to wait for their turn in quarantine centers. 

But, they feared their safety after recovery as they have a duty to attend in hospitals, again exposing them to the virus. Another nurse, Liu Lu, was part of the female medical workers dispatched to Hubei narrates that the nurses decided to cut their hair short of joining duty in the airtight protective gowns Xinhua News Agency, China.  A journalist from Wuhan, Liu Lucian, narrates twenty-four-year-old nurse Ye Qi who worked more than a month without rest.

Community Workers

As community workers, women voluntarily took charge of daily check-ups of the residents’ temperature, taking care of old age parents staying alone, delivering groceries and vegetables to the households, and regular monitoring. When under strict lockdown, Wuhan people convulsed into collective despair as a growing number of people needed immediate daily life support, women provided valuable help to the needy.

Xujia- Caiguan Jia is illustrative of women’s involvement in community work.  In Xujia Peng Street, Wuchang District, Wuhan, lived more than 4000 elderly residents who were technologically unaware of mobile apps. They were supported by women workers who came forward to help these elderly residents. One of the women volunteers Xujia emerged as Caiguan Jia, who made available all essential commodities and vegetables at much lower prices than the market and ensured food safety standards.

Another woman volunteer was Huang Ping. A teacher lived in a community close to Tongji hospital; through the school work certificate, found supermarkets group purchase, and contacted them for the community distribution in that area. Some of the women’s voluntary activism focused on awareness campaigns. Ding Cao Li came to the limelight for her committed activism in the field of epidemic prevention. Ding was the secretary of the Xinwuli community.

Hanyang District level Women’s Federation office printed a story about Ding Li, who carried out a tireless campaign against the epidemic by focusing on how to prevent its spread in the local community. Ding used a variety of methods of epidemic prevention, which includes “strict quarantine,” “strong protection,” “publicity,” “livelihood protection,” “detailed investigation,” “strict isolation,” and “solid support” to make people more aware as well as be vigilant about the contagion.

Sanitation Workers

Wuhan’s women sanitation workers also struggled to keep the city’s streets clean with increased workloads. . In addition to their usual cleaning services, sanitation workers have to empty mask recycling bins, sterilize their vehicles three times a day and spray disinfectant onto the streets.

Ms. Lian, who is in her mid-60s, is paid 70 yuan a day but explained that she would be fined double of the amount if she is absent even for a single day as told to the correspondent of the China Labour Bulletin. Also, the lack of public transportation made these workers reach their workplace in time more difficult. Another sanitation worker, Ms Wu, said she had to walk for more than an hour to reach her cleaning station.

Women as Caterers and Taxi drivers

A group of dedicated caterers and delivery drivers like 32-year-old Chen Jing had worked around the clock to provide free meals to Wuhan’s medical staff. They had to take extra shifts to cook almost a thousand meals a day and deliver to the medical staff in five city hospitals in Wuhan by putting themselves at risk of contracting the disease in the process.

Chen had planned to return to her hometown in Shaanxi for the Lunar New Year holiday, but, like millions of others, she was trapped when the city was quarantined on 23 January. She said, “I cannot return home as I have to prepare meals for Wuhan doctors.” She worked for food delivery company Meituan and organized an efficient and hygienic delivery system that provided medical workers with much-needed meals.

Chen and her colleagues’ efforts are testimonies to the fact that the coronavirus outbreak has not only affected the city’s frontline medical staff but has also placed extraordinary demands on Wuhan’s delivery workers, taxi drivers, sanitation, and community workers.  Thousands of taxi drivers help transport people to and from the hospital, not just suspected coronavirus cases, but pregnant women, patients under dialysis, etc. They also help keep local communities supplied with daily necessities, food, and medicine.  

Industries dominated by women have been hit hard by the outbreak. According to statistics, the employment rate of Chinese women was nearly 70 percent, mainly in agriculture, hotel, catering, and wholesale and retail industries. Unfortunately, hotel and catering, farming and livestock, and other women employment industries have been severely affected by the epidemic.  

The Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security has released a list of the 100 “most underemployed” jobs in China in the third quarter of 2020. Among them, sales staff, cleaners, restaurant waiters, security guards, merchandise workers, housekeeping attendants, customer service personnel, real estate brokers, delivery workers, care workers, and other occupations are in the top 10 “most underemployed” occupations. Needless to say, that the majority of these occupations, women are employed in large numbers.

COVID-19 and Cases of Domestic Violence  

There has been an increase in domestic violence in China about the lockdown amid COVID-19. There were physical abuse instances by their husbands, and women were almost kicked out of their house. The police station in Jianli County, Jingzhou city in Hubei Province had received 162 reports of domestic violence in February this year — three times more than the 47 reported during the same month the previous year.

The number of cases reported in January 2020 had also doubled compared with the same period last year. In some cases, the households’ economic conditions seem to put a strain on and causing violence against women. Women often find themselves completely at the receiving end of their husbands, who hold better employment, forcing them not to report the case to the authorities. The police in many parts of China have been reluctant to help the survivors, especially during the epidemic.

So, how do the Chinese government make the policies gender sensitive in nature will be something to be watched at in the immediate future?

The above are the event excerpts of the webinar organized by Gender Impact Studies Center at Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI) and Delhi Post News on Coronavirus Pandemic and Women’s lives in Wuhan.

YouTube Video for COVID-19 Pandemic and Women’s Lives in Wuhan

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  • Ritika Gupta

    Ritika Gupta is a senior research assistant at Impact and Policy Research Institute. Her research Interests include Gender Studies, Public Policy and Development, Climate Change and Sustainable Development.