Written By: Neha Maini
Edited By: Rachel Kuo and Abigail Goh
Designed/Illustrations by: Srashti
CONTENT WARNING: Mentions of violence and abuse.
This piece does not, in any way, suggest that the COVID-19 vaccinations are unsafe or that they should not be taken. If you have any queries or concerns over the COVID-19 vaccinations, we recommend you speak to a healthcare professional.
With much of the world celebrating the incredible scientific effort that has resulted in vaccinations to fight COVID-19, and with many of us hoping that this is the start of our lives returning to normal, the effect of these vaccinations on women worldwide has gone amiss. Although not immediately apparent, the advent of COVID-19 vaccinations has numerous impacts on women, from their inclusion (or lack thereof) in research to helping relatives receive their vaccines. With this in mind, let’s start unpacking the ways women have been affected by COVID-19 vaccines.
An insightful article published in The Lancet brings to light the effect of COVID-19 vaccinations on women’s unpaid care work. ‘Unpaid care work’ refers to the work women do that is not paid for but takes up a substantial amount of their time, for example, domestic work or looking after elderly relatives. Unpaid care and domestic work are valued at 13% of the global gross domestic product (GDP), showing it is worth more to the global economy than manufacturing, commerce or transportation. In general, unpaid labour and care work falls at the feet of the women in a household with statistics showing that women do at least 2.5 times more unpaid household and care work than men.
What does this have to do with COVID-19 vaccinations? Let’s take the UK as an example. COVID-19 vaccinations in the UK are being distributed on a needs basis, with more at-risk groups being granted early access to the vaccinations. Therefore, older generations are some of the first to receive their COVID-19 vaccines. As mentioned earlier, women generally are tasked with caring for elderly relatives as part of their unpaid care work, and so COVID-19 vaccines are increasing women’s unpaid care work as many must take their elderly relatives to their vaccine appointments. Additionally, as highlighted in The Lancet article, many vaccinations require two jabs, thus further increasing the already horrific and exploitative care burden placed on women.
Side Effects and COVID-19 Vaccines: What to Expect
Image courtesy of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health
Why does it matter if women’s unpaid care work is increased? Due to unpaid commitments that often fall during working hours, such as taking elderly relatives to vaccination appointments, many women will miss out on paid working opportunities and may lose time that could otherwise be spent on work or education. Alongside this, many women will lose more money when performing their unpaid care work tasks as they may have to pay for public transport use or petrol, resulting in them being more out-of-pocket as a result of increased unpaid care work. This is especially concerning for women in poverty, those in precarious job contracts (such as zero-hour), or those who live in rural areas who may have to travel long distances.
In addition to the impact on women’s unpaid care work, COVID-19 vaccines also significantly affect women’s paid labour. In the UK, 77% of the NHS workforce is female, with numbers increasing in the roles of nursing and health visitors. Moreover, in Singapore, there is a large number of female foreign healthcare workers. The latest SNB annual report shows that the bulk of foreign nurses are from the Philippines. The study (by The Lien Foundation) found that Singapore relies most heavily on foreign workers. Almost three-quarters of direct care workers here are foreigners, compared to a third in Australia, 10 per cent in Japan, and less than 5 per cent in Hong Kong and South Korea.
Image courtesy of Annual Report (2019), Singapore Nursing Board
With women forming the majority of healthcare workers, not only does the role of taking relatives to vaccine appointments fall at their feet, but so does the administration of the vaccine to countless members of the public. Due to these COVID-19 vaccines, the paid workload of women has also increased. Whilst many women in the workforce understand that huge efforts need to be made to roll out this vaccine, it is important that we do not let their work go unnoticed. Additionally, as they make up the majority of the workforce, they also make up most of the staff who care for COVID-19 patients in the hospital.
Every day these women put themselves at risk and work through traumatic and exhausting shifts – we must recognise and appreciate their work.
Singapore begins Covid-19 vaccination exercise with NCID staff first to get the jab
Image courtesy of TODAY Online
The increased workload is not the only impact vaccine administration is having on women. Mass vaccination programmes can pose a substantial threat to healthcare workers’ safety and security, as shown in vaccination programmes against Ebola and Polio. These situations are not ‘in the history books’, or ‘a long way from home’ – in 2019, a Polio vaccine worker was shot dead in Pakistan. The reasons behind these attacks are likely complex and varied; for example, in Pakistan healthcare workers were attacked as they were believed to be harming children with the Polio vaccine after a hoax video circulated online. However, these safety risks are not limited to healthcare staff. As highlighted by The Lancet, there is concern over the general safety of women and girls. Reports from the Congo in 2018 illustrate how male healthcare workers exchanged Ebola-related services, including vaccinations, for sexual favours from women and girls. This is incredibly distressing and shows the enormous risks that need to be considered in these vaccination programmes, especially for those in rural areas where there may not be a great consideration for the law, or where women often are not aware of their rights.
The impact of the COVID-19 vaccination programmes on women’s security must be considered seriously, and relevant precautions must be taken to ensure their safety.
Experts Call for Inclusion of Pregnant Women in Vaccine Research
Image courtesy of VOA
Beyond the effect of the COVID-19 vaccines on women’s labour (paid and unpaid) and their safety, the long-term abuse of the healthcare system on women shows their effects with women’s hesitancy to receiving their vaccinations. A National Geographic survey in the United States found that 69% of men said they were somewhat or very likely to take the vaccine, compared to just 51% of women.Whilst there are many reasons suggested for why women are less likely to take the vaccine, a key one that cannot be ignored is the mistrust between women and healthcare systems. For years, women’s healthcare problems have gone missed or undiagnosed due to data biases or lack of research. Furthermore, Krubiner (Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics) explains that: researchers and health care providers tend to exclude pregnant women from trials, vaccinations and tracking because they lack evidence of the risks expectant mothers face. The book “Invisible Women” highlights this when stating that research into PMS is wholly underfunded, resulting in a lack of information for healthcare workers treating those with PMS. Additionally, statistics such as “women with severe stomach pain had to wait for 33% longer to be seen by a doctor than men with the same symptoms” are all too real and result in mistrust.As stated in The Guardian article, the COVID-19 vaccine has been shown to be safe for use. There is no current scientific evidence to suggest otherwise. However, many women’s reluctance to take the vaccine is the outcome of years of mistrust and abuse by the system. This situation reflects the importance of healthcare systems taking time to earn the trust of women.
The increase in unpaid and paid labour, the risk to safety, and the mistrust between women and healthcare is just the start of a long thread of ways this vaccine will likely impact women.
It is probable that these impacts will go unnoticed. However, the implications of the past must be acknowledged and efforts should be made to minimise any negative impacts of women as a result of COVID-19.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Hi, I’m Neha, and I’m currently a university student. I’m a 4th-year medical student interested in Obstetrics & Gynaecology and have just completed my Women’s Health iBSc! I’m also the Vice-chair for Communications at Not On My Campus UK, a student collective aimed at tackling sexual violence on campuses (Instagram: @notonmycampusuk). I also run an Instagram page dedicated to Women’s Health and Women’s Rights (Instagram: @artemis_womenshealth) where I share current news in this field and provide information on the global issues in women’s health and women’s rights!