Service and untold sacrifices: Women on the Covid-19 frontline in Malaysia

A health worker in protective suit collects swab samples from a motorist at a drive-through testing site for Covid-19 at MSU Medical Centre in Shah Alam April 10, 2020. —  Picture by Yusof Mat Isa
A health worker in protective suit collects swab samples from a motorist at a drive-through testing site for Covid-19 at MSU Medical Centre in Shah Alam April 10, 2020. — Picture by Yusof Mat Isa

KUALA LUMPUR, April 13 — As a doctor and a mother, one of the greatest sacrifices that Dr Mina Khalil has had to make is giving up time with her child. 

This is especially hard to do when it is her turn to be on call. 

“For those who have children, they will understand how attached a baby is to their mother, or how often you need to nurse your baby.

“A doctor on call who is also a mother cannot do these things because they have to be at the hospital throughout their entire shift,” said the 36-year-old using a pseudonym.

Forced separation

Working hours for a doctor on call could last up to 36 hours straight. Although this varies between departments, a doctor is required to be on call up to six times a month. 

On top of that, Dr Mina said if a healthcare staff is exposed to a Covid-19 patient, they are required to be quarantined for 14 days. 

“That is almost 20 days you are away from your young child. It is very heart wrenching to know that you cannot hold your child or comfort them when they need you.

“A friend of mine had to be quarantined at home and cannot be in contact with her child. She had to pretend that she was at work; when, in actual fact, she was in a room in the house. 

“She could only communicate with her child via video calls while awaiting her test results,” said Dr Mina who works at a hospital here.  

Health workers in protective suits are seen at Selangor Mansion and Malayan Mansion in Jalan Masjid India April 7, 2020. — Picture by Firdaus Latif
Health workers in protective suits are seen at Selangor Mansion and Malayan Mansion in Jalan Masjid India April 7, 2020. — Picture by Firdaus Latif

Dr Mina said many women healthcare workers go through similar ordeals — leaving their young child at daycare before heading to work. 

“It is nothing like what the Women, Family and Community Development Ministry’s posters on ‘Kebahagian Rumahtangga’ suggest — which seem to summarise a woman’s life based on household chores,” she said. 

According to Dr Mina, pregnant doctors still fulfill on call hours in the days leading up to their delivery date. 

“It’s tough and some women doctors go back to work after two weeks of confinement leave,” she said of those who are part of a Masters programme. 

If anything, Dr Mina said, household chores should be divided equally and not just dumped on women. 

“This mindset needs to change,” she added. 

Suit up

For Dr Susan Choo, who works in the main critical zone of the emergency department in a hospital here, that means she is required to don a full set of PPE (personal protective equipment) for more than 10 hours. 

“Even when we are not treating Covid-19 patients, we have to remain in our PPE when treating pre-assigned non-Covid-19 patients,” said Dr Choo when contacted. 

A full PPE set includes a face shield, head cover, apron, boot covers and waterproof gown. A face mask and gloves are also worn. 

But because donning full PPE takes up a lot of time, Dr Choo said some women doctors and healthcare staff have resorted to cutting their hair short for easy maintenance. 

“Some of my colleagues had their long, beautiful hair cut short, so that after a wash, their hair dries fast.

“Because after seeing a patient (either suspected of contracting the virus or a confirmed positive case) we need to shower thoroughly from head to toe. 

“So if a doctor sees 10 Covid-19 patients, a shower is taken each time,” she added. 

Even after four years of working as a medical officer in the emergency department, Dr M. Danusha said wearing a full set of PPE made of largely “non-breathable” protective material requires a lot of endurance.

“Healthcare workers are encouraged to wear comfortable clothes and shoes.  

“Plus, in the emergency department, we are always in some sort of PPE, just not the full works (before Covid-19 came about),” she said. 

‘Forgotten’ frontliners

A pharmacist who only wanted to be identified as Ling said, as it is, women in Malaysia are facing a hard time trying to fight for equal pay and treatment in society. 

“Not only that, because suddenly people have forgotten that pharmacists are frontliners too. 

“Looks like things have gotten worse. Not only that my profession has been downgraded, now my gender too,” she said when met at a pharmacy on Jalan Pahang here. 

Ling is the only pharmacist on duty, on an unusually quiet day at the pharmacy. According to her, Jalan Pahang is no longer bustling with traffic in and out of Hospital Kuala Lumpur. 

When asked if she is worried about her safety since the street is rather deserted, she said as a precautionary measure, only one customer is allowed into the pharmacy at a time. 

Mother knows best

As for Michelle Wong, 48, she travels every day from Rawang with her pharmacist son to Jalan Pahang to start work at 8.30am.  

“We have decided to stay open throughout the MCO because we still have regulars who need certain medication and they can only get it at our pharmacy,” she said, referring to the movement control order that is currently in place. 

Wong, who has worked at the pharmacy for more than 20 years, said she considers her job part of her daily routine. 

“I’m a mother even at work. I feel the need to make sure that my son is safe. That’s why I’m always seated here (at the cashier’s counter), where I screen people before sending them to the pharmacist, my son,” said Wong when met at another pharmacy on Jalan Pahang. 

“Am I worried about the virus? Of course I am, but we take the necessary precautions and follow the guidelines recommended by the Health Ministry,” said Wong. 

To date, Malaysia has yet to formalise laws that can protect women from gender bias, discrimination and sexual harassment. 

Several Bills, including the Sexual Harassment Bill, Anti-Discrimination Against Women Bill and anti-stalking laws, are scheduled to be tabled at the next Parliament sitting. 

*The names of the healthcare workers in this story have been changed to protect their identities.

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