Pandemic’s disproportionate impact . . .
According to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately affected women and girls in its member states and hindered efforts towards gender equality and the elimination of gender-based violence. Lockdowns imposed to curb transmission contributed to a “shadow pandemic” of violence against women. In 2020, domestic violence helplines throughout the region experienced a drastic jump in calls over 2019, ranging from 33 and 40 per cent in Singapore and Malaysia, respectively, to 70 per cent in Indonesia. Women also faced a greater risk of exposure to COVID-19, as they comprise the majority of health-care workers in Southeast Asia and are more likely to be front-line medical personnel.
The gender of nursing . . .
Nursing is a highly gendered profession in Southeast Asia – in most countries, more than 70 per cent of nurses are women. The region has also struggled with high mortality rates among health-care workers who lack adequate protective equipment, particularly in Indonesia and the Philippines. Furthermore, there is a shortage of women in leadership positions in health and policy-making, which has contributed to the lack of gender-inclusive perspectives in the formulation of pandemic response measures and recovery plans. Recently, senior government officials in the Philippines proposed relaxing its cap on medical professionals allowed to leave the country, potentially permitting thousands of health-care workers – nurses in particular – to accept work in Britain and Germany, so long as these countries donate coronavirus vaccines to the Philippines.
Reduced to a bargaining chip . . .
The Philippines is a leading exporter of nurses, sending out about 19,000 in 2019 alone, the majority of them women. For decades, nurses from the Philippines have migrated for better pay and working conditions abroad and are also motivated by the prospect of sending remittances home to their families. In Canada, 30 per cent of foreign-educated nurses are from the Philippines. However, with the onset of the COVID-19 crisis, Manila severely curtailed the number of these workers leaving last year in an attempt to address its own shortage of health-care workers. Meanwhile, the nurses-for-vaccines scheme did not land well with labour advocates who strongly opposed being used as “commodities” by their government.