Women health-care professionals at the heart of the COVID-19 response in Ukraine


A mother helps a nurse to do inhalations to a five-year-old child infected with COVID-19 who was removed from the ventilator in the intensive care unit of Chernivtsi Pediatric Hospital.  Photo: UNICEF/Maloletka
A mother helps a nurse to do inhalations to a five-year-old child infected with COVID-19 who was removed from the ventilator in the intensive care unit of Chernivtsi Pediatric Hospital.  Photo: UNICEF/Maloletka

For the last four months, health-care workers have been at the forefront of the fight against the coronavirus pandemic. To save the lives of others, they are forced to work in extremely challenging conditions – often without proper rest and endangering their own health and lives.

As of 14 July 2020, health-care professionals represented 14 per cent of the more than 54,000 people who had contracted COVID-19 in Ukraine.

Given that women constitute 82.8 per cent of health-care workers in the country and play a central role as front-line responders, they are particularly exposed. Besides the potentially harmful consequences to their physical health, they are also under unprecedented pressure and often experience increased anxiety.

“When you put protective gear on, it creates some physical discomfort, but the emotional discomfort is way bigger, because there is a lot unknown when you first encounter this disease,” says Oksana Koroliak, Head of the Paediatric Department of Okhmatdyt Hospital in Lviv, the regional capital of one of the most affected regions in Ukraine. “We fear for our health. Especially when taking off the protective gear, we start to doubt whether we did everything right.”

Despite the serious risks she faces when treating infected patients, Koroliak, who has been a doctor for several decades, notes that the most traumatic part of the epidemic for her has been the inability to see her children and grandchildren.

Olena Berezovska, Deputy Head of the same hospital, says that when the pandemic began, they organized staff to work in the red zone (for patients with COVID-19) and conducted the specialized trainings on how to wear personal protective equipment. Berezovska, who coordinates the treatment of COVID-19 patients, admits that the pandemic has been both a professional challenge and a stress test for her.

In addition to high levels of stress and extra shifts, women health-care professionals also often lack personal protective gear. According to the Rapid Gender Assessment (RGA) conducted by UN Women Ukraine, only 13.9 per cent of women (who participated in the online survey) working in health-care said they were adequately provided with personal protective equipment (masks, gloves, other), while 59.7 per cent were only partially equipped and 26.4 per cent were not equipped at all.

“Thanks to philanthropists, we are now provided with personal protective equipment. However, at the beginning, we had to share information via our social media pages that we needed help. Fortunately, we received many donations from foundations, small and medium-sized businesses, and just ordinary people,” explains Berezovska.

The RGA, conducted between 21 March and 12 April, provided important evidence on other crucial impacts of COVID-19 on women in Ukraine. Both the online survey and phone interviews with women from vulnerable groups, including front-line responders, revealed daily challenges such as fear they’ll have to skimp on essential services if COVID-19-related measures continue (77.4 per cent of women said there was a high likelihood they would have difficulty paying for rent and utilities). They also face additional barriers in access to health and social services, spikes in domestic violence, and the increased burden of unpaid domestic and care work during quarantine (78.9 per cent of female respondents said their engagement in educating their children had increased dramatically).

“The working day has become longer now,” says Berezovska. “Fortunately, my family was very supportive. However, some women working in the hospital experienced the opposite – in particular, a nurse was threatened by her husband when she stayed at work longer than usual.”

The findings of the RGA showcase the disproportional effects of restrictive measures on women from vulnerable groups, emphasizes Nurgul Asylbekova, Project Manager for UN Women Ukraine. “We can see how the broad array of challenges these women experienced already, due to the strong gender inequalities, are exacerbated during the COVID-19 crisis. And women front-line workers are of particular concern as they not only put their health at risk but also have to balance intense and changing schedules and caregiving responsibilities,” she said.

The situation is particularly acute for single-mother front-line responders. Because they cannot work remotely, they often have to leave their children home alone or with relatives or neighbours. With schools and preschools closed, Berezovska says many female employees have been forced to take unpaid leave to care for their children.

“I am not a single mother, but my husband is a doctor as well,” explains Mariana Klymtsiv, a family doctor from Chervonograd, in the Lviv region. “So, neither of us can work remotely, and we have to leave our 9- and 12-year-old daughters at home alone. Of course, they got worse grades than their classmates whose parents were able to help them with distance learning. We also had to teach them how to cook over the weekends as we did not always have time to prepare meals for them during the week.”

Despite the situation, health-care workers remain hopeful that the crucial role of women front-line responders will be acknowledged and that both national and regional authorities will pay more attention to their needs. They also expect the representation of women to increase on crisis decision-making bodies in Ukraine. Currently, women are involved in less than 20 per cent of decision-making processes in the health-care sector. Increasing their roles is essential for a more gender-equal response and recovery from this crisis.