Voices from the front lines of COVID-19

Date: Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Half the world is under stay-home orders, that means four billion people in 90 countries. The world is scrambling to stop the spread of the disease and find ways to treat the infected, and economies are suffering untold losses.

COVID-19 has impacted us all, but most of the decisions taken are by men and the voices we hear are often male., Yet, the majority of front-line health workers are women and many of the industries directly affected by quarantines and lockdowns—such as travel, tourism and food production—have a higher concentration of women. The care burden on women—already three times more than men on a good day—has grown exponentially.

UN Women is bringing the voices of women on the front lines of the pandemic. As essential workers, care givers and journalists, here are some s(h)eroes who are out there, every day, protecting and serving their communities.

Entela Kolovani, doctor, Tirana, Albania

Entela Kolovani is a doctor in Tirana, Albania and currently works with patients diagnosed with COVID-19. Photo courtesy of Entela Kolovani.
Entela Kolovani is a doctor in Tirana, Albania and currently works with patients diagnosed with COVID-19. Photo courtesy of Entela Kolovani.

“The nurses are the real heroes,” says Entela Kolovani, a physician treating COVID-19 patients at the hospital of infectious diseases in Tirana, Albania.

“They carry out the most difficult tasks and most of the workload. Nurses (most of whom are women) are our greatest supporters, working endless shifts with special protective equipment on, which is very hard to keep on and work with. Their work never ends, from making up the beds of patients, to performing therapies, taking tests and filling in documents. I am so deeply grateful to them.”

Dr. Kolovani and her colleagues have been in the front line of COVID-19 response since 9 March when the first two cases were identified in Albania. Since then, the number of people infected has risen to over 361.

As care givers and essential workers, women are at increased risk of getting infected. As of now, almost 12 per cent of Albania’s reported cases of coronavirus have been health workers.

“One of our biggest challenges is to see colleagues and friends we work with every day becoming ill with COVID-19. Another challenge is how to make sure that more patients recover quickly so that we don’t overburden our health facilities,” Dr. Kolovani shared.

All medical staff at the hospital are working longer hours, including her husband, who is also a doctor. The coronavirus pandemic has put unprecedented strain on families, especially when partners are working in health or other essential services.

Dr. Kolovani and her husband have not seen their sons since the pandemic hit the country. “Since both me and my husband work at the same hospital and do the same job, the risk of infection for our son and other family members is very high,” she explains. When they return home after a long day at the hospital, the house feels empty. “But it is better this way, keeping the distance to avoid infecting your loved ones,” she adds.

Natawan Pintho, Police Captain, Suvarnabhumi Airport, Bangkok, Thailand

Natawan Pintho, an immigration officer at the airport in Bangkok, Thailand. Photo: UN Women/Ploy Phutpheng
Natawan Pintho, an immigration officer at the airport in Bangkok, Thailand. Photo: UN Women/Ploy Phutpheng

Natawan Pintho, 29, is an immigration officer at the international airport in Bangkok, Thailand.

Everything has changed for Natawan—from her daily routines at work or at home, to the risk she experiences every day. “The airport welcomes fewer passengers each day. We have learned how to sanitize our working space, our hands, we have to be more careful with people by wearing masks and keeping social distance.”

Before COVID-19 outbreak, Natawan would handle at least a thousand passengers every day. Now it’s a maximum of 100, which reduces her exposure to people, but performing some of the simple tasks are still risky, like checking the pages of a passport. “I need to make sure that the passport is genuine and in order to do so, I need to touch the paper with my fingers,” she says.

Having to deny passengers entry into Thailand according to the new rules has been a challenging ordeal for Natawan. “I had the case of a family of four from France. They were of Chinese descent. Three of them held French passports, but the woman had a Chinese passport. She couldn’t get into the country. We, therefore, helped her to figure out the situation by getting her a new airline ticket to another country”

“‘Am I already infected?’ is the question that I keep asking myself every day. I am allergic to dust, so I sneeze. Before, no one would pay any attention. Nowadays, I keep scaring everyone!”

Natawan’s family lives in Ubon Ratchathani, 600 Kilometres from Bangkok. But she can’t visit her family now. “If I return to my hometown, I will have to self-quarantine for 14 days,” she says.

Natawan misses the simple luxuries of visiting a hairdresser and getting a manicure, but there are also more serious concerns weighing on her mind: “We need to live on a budget because the overtime pay has decreased; so, that means less money in hand.” In March, Natawan’s monthly pay was 30 per cent less than what she would usually make.

Parinya Sirirattanapanya, Food delivery service provider, Bangkok, Thailand

Parinya Sirirattanapanya, a food delivery provider in Bangkok, Thailand. Photo: UN Women/Ploy Phutpheng
Parinya Sirirattanapanya, a food delivery provider in Bangkok, Thailand. Photo: UN Women/Ploy Phutpheng

Food delivery is among the few essential services still open in most countries during coronavirus lockdowns. Forty-four-year-old Parinya Sirirattanapanya is among an estimated 150,000 GrabFood delivery drivers, mostly men, in the city of Bangkok. It’s the go-to service for most people in the city, including immigration officer, Natawan Pintho.

Before the COVID-19 outbreak, Parinya had a pop-up clothing shop. But no one is out on the streets shopping anymore, and her small business is shut down. She says there are many women food delivery workers now.

“The number of food delivery workers is rapidly increasing, and the mall’s operating hours have been adjusted to 11 am to 8 pm. I receive less order and wait longer to collect the food,” says Parinya.

She understands the risk she is exposed to every day and takes all the precautions that she can so that she doesn’t take the virus back to her family.

“I am more likely to face health risks, but I have no choice. I need the financial support for my family.”

“When I go out, I wear a jacket, 2 masks—one fabric and one disposable mask—and gloves, to minimize the risk of infection. I also prepare hand sanitizers and antibacterial sprays to take with me. I always keep my hands clean and away from my face. Every single time I return change to customers (if I have to take off my gloves), I wash my hands or clean them with hand sanitizer.”

“I wish that Covid-19 could be controlled as soon as possible. I know that several measures are implemented to reduce the [spread] of the virus, but many people in the society take them for granted. Taking social responsibility is essential in this situation.,” Parinya reflects.

“The testing capacity for Covid-19 is really limited. I hope everyone could get tested free of cost. Then we can minimize the spread of Covid-19,” she adds.

Zevonia Vieira, Journalist, Timor-Leste

Zevonia Vieira, President of Timor-Leste Journalists Association.
Zevonia Vieira, President of Timor-Leste Journalists Association.

Zevonia Vieira, is the President of Timor-Leste Journalists Association and now reporting from the front line of COVID-19 outbreak every day. As a journalist, I have an obligation to share information with the public at any time, including during this outbreak. People want reliable information,” she says.

As countries around the world struggle to limit the spread of the disease, journalists like Zevonia are putting themselves at risk every day to get credible information and to educate the public about recommended prevention measures.

Timor-Leste announced state of emergency in late March, and the government has issued social distancing orders and ensuring that front line workers get access to protective equipment. The journalists in Timor-Leste have called for the government to provide a media centre, with enough space and appropriate infrastructure to allow journalists to maintain social distancing while they are working.

Zevonia is also a single mother and breadwinner for her family. During this crisis, balancing her professional and caregiving roles has been a challenge, like most other working parent. “After a full day of being at work, once I arrive home, I have to tenderly take care of my family’s needs and spend time with my son until he goes to bed. Then, late at night I will continue writing,” she shares.

Zevonia is committed to her work, but exhausted. To get through this crisis, collaboration with governments is key, she says.

Tassana Boontong, President of Thailand Nursing and Midwifery Council

Tassana Boontong, President of Thailand’s Nursing and Midwifery Council. Photo: UN Women/Pathumporn Thongking
Tassana Boontong, President of Thailand’s Nursing and Midwifery Council. Photo: UN Women/Pathumporn Thongking

Thailand has had a long tradition of combining nursing and midwifery. The combined role was set up to meet the shortage of healthcare workers for primary care. For more than a century now, nurse-midwives have been deployed at the community level to respond to the health care needs of people of all ages.

According to Tassana Boontong, President of Thailand Nursing and Midwifery Council, “nurse-midwives are needed now more than ever with the increase in the number of elderly and chronically ill patients, those with non-communicable diseases and with mental health issues and disabilities.”

At present, 10,000 – 12,000 students graduate every year to become nurse-midwives in Thailand, which has a population of 69 million. Yet, there remains a shortage of registered nurse-midwives, especially in the remote areas, to meet primary medical care needs.

As Thailand grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic, the shortage of health care workers is getting worse, says Tassana. “They have to [work] in the hospital around the clock with limited personal protective equipment. They are not only facing the lethal disease but also mental stress, exhaustion and concern for their family members.The nurses choose to go to work, perform their duty, but cannot see their families. Life insurance and work welfare for the nurses are still in question."

Tassana considers Thailand's policy of Universal Health Coverage to be critical for promoting equity in access to quality health care. "Nurses have played a pivotal role in the implementation of Universal Health Care policy,” she says. "Nurses advocate for clients to get quality service…I wish to see a reformed health care system that value nursing services, invests more in nursing resources and recognize their contributions, including through fair remuneration and wages and better welfare policies.”