“I’ve never worked in those kind of conditions. It was like fire fighting. You had young people, as well as elderly people, who were just fighting for their lives.”
As a respiratory specialist, Dr Shumonta Quaderi’s life was turned upside down when Covid-19 tore through the UK last spring. The 37-year-old, from London, was worried about the virus “right from the beginning”. Beds in ICU were filling up, while ventilators were running critically low.
“We were totally inundated with numbers, but this was a completely new thing for us,” she says. “We had no idea what we were dealing with. Yes, the virus attacked the lungs, but it was attacking other parts of the body as well. We were all learning together, the best way to manage and treat it.”
To make matters more complicated, Dr Quaderi was also four months pregnant, with her first child. Pregnant women had been advised not to do frontline work, yet despite support from her hospital, Dr Quaderi decided to go against the advice. She had adequate PPE – though reports of “extreme shortages” elsewhere in the country were rife – and felt it was her duty to continue.
“I felt really strongly and passionately about wanting to work,” she says. “It was my particular specialty, and my profession, so it would feel weird to sit back.”
Women like Dr Quaderi have been working throughout the pandemic in the very jobs that have kept the nation functioning. Many are doing so while shouldering society’s unpaid work, too – childcare, looking after elderly relatives, and housework – which still disproportionately falls to women.
As the UN has said: "Women stand at the front lines of the Covid-19 crisis, as health care workers, caregivers, innovators, community organisers and as some of the most exemplary and effective national leaders in combating the pandemic. The crisis has highlighted both the centrality of their contributions and the disproportionate burdens that women carry.”
An exclusive Savanta ComRes poll* for HuffPost UK reveals women are doing more childcare, cooking and household work than before the pandemic. For those working from home, any time they may have saved from physically travelling to and from work has been filled with unpaid, domestic labour.
And this shift in lifestyle is negatively impacting women’s mental health.
Nearly half (47%) of the women surveyed say their mental health has declined. Two-thirds (63%) feel more anxious, while 55% feel more challenged and 53% feel more limited. Yet these experiences are seldom acknowledged. Worryingly, almost a third (32%) of women now feel less heard than they were previously.
As the UK’s death toll surpasses 124,000 – the highest per capita of any country in the world – many are dealing with these life-altering challenges amid grief.
Professor Shani Orgad, a sociologist at the London School of Economics, says that while she’s not surprised by the findings, she is “deeply disappointed and alarmed by them”.
“When people say the pandemic has set back the cause of gender equality ‘to the 1950s’ we should all take this very, very seriously.”
“Crises like the pandemic reveal and exacerbate existing social and economic inequalities. So the pandemic has deepened a crisis of care and gender and racial inequalities that existed before,” Professor Orgad tells HuffPost UK.
“There has been mounting evidence – already before the pandemic – showing that women (more than men), especially those aged 35 to 49 with caring responsibilities for both children and elderly parents, suffer from stress and mental health problems as a result of the current crisis in social care.
“Women were therefore the obvious ‘shock absorbers’ of the pandemic.”
For Amahra Spence, a 29-year-old business owner from Birmingham, it’s felt “impossible” to work from home while homeschooling a four-year-old and raising a newborn. “I’ll have a meeting at 8am while I’m feeding one. Then the other one’s setting up his laptop for a class at 9am. Then I’ll go into another meeting, and all the while I’ve got my baby on my lap,” she says.
“I am so tired. I am exhausted. It’s really hard.”
Spence doesn’t think women have been valued enough for this juggling act and was saddened to hear of companies targeting working mothers for redundancy or furlough.
According to research by the campaign group Pregnant then Screwed, almost half (46%) of working mothers made redundant believe a lack of childcare provision played a role in their redundancy. Meanwhile, 65% of mothers who have been furloughed say a lack of childcare was the reason.
“There is mounting evidence showing that women have suffered huge financial penalties largely because of caring responsibilities,” says Professor Orgad.
“Women are losing their jobs at four times the rate of men; women especially in the lowest socioeconomic groups were more likely to be furloughed, women have been forced to cut their working hours and scale back their careers,” she says. “So, when people say the pandemic has set back the cause of gender equality ‘to the 1950s’ we should all take this very, very seriously.”
“They say it takes a village to raise a child and I’ve realised with the absence of my village, how true that is.”
Spence is relieved that schools are finally reopening. In her view, homeschooling is something that’s become worryingly “trivialised” over the past year.
“People are joking and laughing [but] I’m speaking with other parents, friends of mine, and everybody is so stretched and emotionally broken,” she says.
She gave birth to her second child in June 2020 – “slap bang in the middle of the pandemic”. Being heavily pregnant during the first wave was “just really nerve-wracking and anxiety-inducing”, she says, not least because she had to attend appointments alone while hospitals limited visitor numbers due to Covid.
Spence was terrified of giving birth alone, too, after seeing heartbreaking “lines of fathers outside” on her visits.
In the end, she entered active labour five minutes after arriving at the hospital, so her partner was allowed in for the remainder of her fast, one-hour birth.
However, the challenges continued for the couple. Their son was born with complex health needs, meaning they had to navigate a series of hospital appointments amid ongoing Covid restrictions. It’s made the lack of contact time with friends and family all the more difficult.
“They say it takes a village to raise a child, and I’ve really realised with the absence of my village, how true that is,” says Spence. “I’ve found it terrifying. I’ve found it really, really scary and I’ve found it really, really sad.”
Others have struggled, too. More than half of the women we surveyed (51%) said they are “less happy” than they were before the pandemic. This increases to 54% among parents.
Money worries factor into this. While 24% of women said the pandemic has had a positive impact on their household finances, 32% reported a negative effect. The rest remain unchanged.
Spence, who runs a social justice arts organisation, says her “finances have been stretched to the brink” this year. “I thought that we might have to close the business last year,” she adds. “Thankfully we got some emergency grants that kept us afloat.”
“You just get on with it, protect yourself as best you can.”
For Monica Sulley, a 58-year-old bus driver from Nottingham, finances have also been tricky. When bus drivers test positive for Covid or are told to self-isolate via Test and Trace, they receive statutory sick pay, which is set at £95.85 per week. “You don’t get paid for the first three days, so the first week off you’ve lost about £40,” she says. “And you can’t live on that.”
Sulley worked as a Tesco delivery driver during the summer, but returned to bus driving – a job she’d previously done for 15 years – in October. She had missed bus work and wanted to get back, despite the risks – she’d read of bus drivers dying from Covid and personally knew a driver who’d died in Nottingham.
“If I’m honest, I didn’t really think about it,” she says of the danger. “You know, it’s one of those things, if you do think about it you’re gonna go mad. You’re not gonna be able to work. So you just get on with it, protect yourself as best you can.”
The hardest part of the job has been dealing with non-compliant passengers, who refuse to wear face masks or follow social distancing measures on the bus. But the overwhelming majority of the public have been grateful for the continued service, she says.
One regular passenger, an elderly man, seemed confused by the new rules, so Sulley bought him a pack of face masks. “You just help people where you can,” she says. “We’re in a strange situation.”
During her toughest week on shift, around 30 staff members were off work self-isolating. Sulley says the government has supported bus companies financially, but this help has not extended down to drivers.
Four in 10 women (40%) surveyed by HuffPost said they didn’t feel government support for women had changed during the pandemic, despite the challenges faced. Almost a third (29%) said they felt less supported by the government than they had previously, while 20% felt less supported by their employer.
While passenger numbers are down on the bus network, work was busier than ever when Sulley was driving for Tesco in June, when there was an unprecedented number of bookings.
“It was hard work. I mean, you could be moving three tons of groceries by hand a day quite easily. Great for your figure!” she laughs. “But it was busy. People weren’t wanting to go out and we had a lot of people who were shielding. It wasn’t unusual to be doing 30 deliveries a day.”
“I was going to work with all these people and in my mind there was a good chance I could catch Covid and bring it home.”
Many others continued shopping in-person, coming into close contact with supermarket staff like Deborah Stevens, who has worked on the check-outs and shop floor in Tesco for 30 years.
The 59-year-old, from Hertfordshire, has three grown-up children, including a daughter, 20, who is living at home with Ehlers-Danlos Syndromes (EDS) and Myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME), meaning she needs to shield.
The government’s policy dictates that people living with shielders must still go to work if they can’t work from home. It leaves Stevens constantly worrying about catching Covid at work, then infecting her vulnerable daughter. “I knew I had to cope with it though, because I had to work financially,” she says.
Work was particularly tough early in the pandemic, when some customers still acted as though the virus was “like flu” and lunged forwards to grab products off the shelf.
“It was like every person coming towards you was going to hurt you,” Stevens recalls. “I worried, extremely – it was all on my shoulders. I was going to work in this place with all these people and in my mind there was a good chance I could catch it and bring it home. It was very, very hard. I was constantly jumping out of people’s way. I was having heart palpitations a lot of the time.”
She made the decision to wear a face mask at work long before they were made mandatory by the government. She says this made her a “target” in some respects, with customers who thought she was being a “drama queen”.
“I felt torn, I wanted to take it off because of the response, but I had to keep it on because of my family,” she says.
Things got easier as face masks rules were introduced and the public started to take the virus seriously. Thankfully, Stevens’ family has avoided falling ill.
Dr Nisreen Alwan, who has juggled roles as an associate professor in public health at the University of Southampton and working as a hospital consultant, while single-handedly caring for three children, has not been so fortunate.
The 46-year-old caught coronavirus early on in March 2020 and says she has never fully recovered. Her personal experience, coupled with her research into public health, has led to her becoming a leading voice on long Covid, raising awareness around the globe.
Dr Alwan is also known for her research on the health and wellbeing of women and children, and speaks out about the importance of a safe return to school.
Talking publicly about such issues has led her to face abuse on social media. Globally, women are 27 times more likely to be harassed online, according to the online abuse charity Glitch.
“The attacks are usually very superficial and thoughtless, and with time you learn how to deal with them,” she says. “But sometimes it can be quite aggressive or passive aggressive.”
Contracting Covid as a single parent of three children aged seven, 13 and 17 was anxiety-inducing. Lockdown restrictions meant she was unable to access additional support, at a point when we still didn’t know much about the virus.
“It was really me and my children trying to manage the situation,” she says.
What was already a demanding career ramped up as she struggled to recover – Dr Alwan is doing her day job, while also keeping up to date with the latest science and public health research in regards to the virus and communicating it to the general public. “I constantly feel I’m not on top of anything,” she says. “There aren’t enough hours in the day.”
“I would describe it as living at work, rather than working at home. It’s difficult to stop.”
Several of the women who spoke to HuffPost UK said their working days have become markedly longer than pre-pandemic.
Dr Alwan crammed her interview into a Monday lunch break, after submitting a body of work at 9pm the night before. “I would describe it as living at work, rather than working at home. It’s difficult to stop,” she says.
The past year has been “a particularly difficult period” physically and mentally, she adds – a sentiment echoed by 56-year-old Carmen De Pablo, a languages teacher who is assistant head of inclusion at a secondary school in Plymouth.
De Pablo was told to shield last March as she has chronic lymphocytic leukaemia (CLL) – a type of cancer affecting the white blood cells that develops slowly over time.
Shielding has changed her life “immensely,” says De Pablo, who lives with her husband and daughter. “It’s been very challenging, I must say. During the first lockdown I found it really difficult to not feel isolated from school.”
While De Pablo says her “first class” colleagues have been incredibly supportive while she’s been working from home, she’s been wracked with feelings of guilt about not being there in person to help out.
She sometimes feels like a fraud, she says, because health-wise she feels fine. In her work, she has struggled with getting used to doing everything online and not being able to have quick catchups with colleagues – there is a constant worry in the back of her mind that she’s emailing too much.
A typical day starts early and involves planning and posting two or three lessons on Google Classroom, ensuring children have access to them and that they’re logging in – and out.
“In school everything is a rush, having a full break is unheard of. I’ve found it is the same here.”
There are meetings with her team, leadership and parents, and sometimes the police, as her role includes safeguarding children and vulnerable families. She’ll eat dinner between 6-7pm, and try to get some “me time”, before working through the evening until 10pm. “And then that’s it, the following day starts.”
“When we’re in school everything is a rush… and having a full break is unheard of,” she says. “I’ve found it is the same here, I’m working longer hours than if I’m in school.” Knowing she’s helping pupils through a challenging time is what’s kept her going . “Interactions with the children are priceless,” she says.
For Amahra Spence, in Birmingham, watching her own children flourish has also been a key motivator. Monica Sulley, meanwhile, credits her husband, Pete, and their family with getting her through the tougher days. On top of her work as a delivery and bus driver this past year, she’s also a Scout leader, union branch chair, mother to two, stepmother to one and grandmother to eight.
“Don’t ask me how many nieces and nephews I’ve got, because I really don’t know,” she jokes. “Somebody said: ‘If you want something doing, give it to a busy woman.’ It’s actually quite true.”
For Dr Alwan in Southampton, connecting and supporting long Covid sufferers across the country and world has given her a sense of purpose through her own illness. She was featured in the BBC’s 100 Women of 2020 for her work during the pandemic, which she calls a “great honour”.
“That was a nice moment for me, because it just reflects the range of power, strength, and innovation that women can bring,” she says of the list.
Work at Tesco has been reaffirming for Deborah Stevens, too. “Women are much stronger than they believe,” she says. “The more they try, the more they can achieve. They’ve got through everything else, they will get through this.”
Dr Quaderi is now on maternity leave and her baby is almost seven months old. She’ll forever be proud of the work she completed while pregnant on ICU: “It was amazing to be able to be a part of it and help those that we could.”
Across healthcare, housing, employment and education, the pandemic has laid bare the many social, racial and gender-based inequalities underpinning life in the UK, but Professor Orgad’s hope is that it will trigger a profound rethinking about the value that society ascribes to different types of work.
“Perhaps this pandemic will serve as a wake-up call, to alert us and our politicians to the urgent need to value – not only by clapping and expressing gratitude – the people who do work that has been rightly called ‘key’ and ‘essential’, and, crucially, to value the largely unpaid invisible work in the home that is performed disproportionately by women,” she says.
In many ways, it’s been a historical year for women. But you shouldn’t be surprised by any of the stories you’ve heard. “Women are, once again, the heroines of the world,” says Spence. “Women are inherently resilient. We’re survivors, and we will always make something work.”
*On behalf of HuffPost UK, Savanta ComRes interviewed 2,398 UK women aged 18+ online from February 26 to March 1. Data were weighted to be representative of all UK women by age and region. Savanta ComRes is a member of the British Polling Council and abides by its rules.