"Angels in White" shine in professionalism
( 2003-08-27 09:43) (China Daily)
While economists were busy counting the financial losses caused by the spread of the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in China, sociologists, especially those studying gender-related issues, became intrigued by the behaviour of women professionals during the emergency.
"Although remarkable performances can be cited among people from leadership levels to those working at the grassroots, it was the women who stood out in the fight against SARS," says Lu Ying, director of the Women and Gender Research Centre of Sun Yatsen University in South China's Guangdong Province, where the country's first cases of SARS were reported.
Zhang Jihui, head nurse with the No 1 People's Hospital in Guangzhou, was the first medical worker to receive nationwide attention on February 15, when the People's Daily started publishing her journal entries describing what was happening in the hospital wards. The firsthand reports of her insights and personal experiences fascinated the information-hungry public with data about the viral disease as well as touching stories of medical workers risking their lives to treat patients.
After her journal hit the news-stands and also appeared on the Internet, a deep respect and heart-warming sentiment for health workers spread quickly across the nation.
As in many other countries, the health sector in China employs large numbers of women. According to the 2000 census, women accounted for 55.8 per cent of all medical staff in the mainland, more than 10 percentage points higher than the proportion of women employed in general. In Beijing and Guangdong, the two areas hit hardest by the SARS pandemic, women constitute respectively 69.5 and 56.5 per cent of the health-care workforce.
Furthermore, women make up 58 per cent of all health professionals in China and as much as 73.2 per cent in Beijing.
"The fight against SARS calls our attention to the great sense of responsibility and professional dedication female health workers displayed," says Tan Lin, a women's studies researcher with the All-China Women's Federation.
According to Tan, while media reports have praised female health workers, or "Angels in White" as they are often called by the public, few touch on their professionalism and dedication to their work as career women.
"The female medical staff have demonstrated by their actions that marriage, child-bearing and child-rearing, which are often used as pretexts to reject women applying for certain jobs, have not deterred them from shouldering their professional responsibilities. The fact that women workers are inferior to their male counterparts in physical strength did not hamper them in accomplishing their duties, which were overwhelming, during that special period," says the researcher.
In the three months prior to June, when SARS effectively took over Beijing, medical workers were under great pressure physically and psychologically.
"We were very depressed at the start, feeling sorry for the SARS patients while worrying about getting infected ourselves," says 23-year-old nurse Liu Haiyan from Northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, who came to Beijing at the time as medical backup. "Although we only worked six-hour shifts, the workload was unprecedented. We had to wear three layers of protective clothing as well as goggles and gloves." The heat they endured clad in so much gear became intolerable as summer approached.
Many nurses simply refrained from drinking water during their shifts to avoid the inconvenience of stopping to use the toilet, as it would mean going through the lengthy process of changing their outfits to meet the strict hygiene standards.
Even so, due to close contact with patients and insufficient protection in the early stages of the SARS epidemic, medical workers comprised nearly 19 per cent of the roughly 5,000 confirmed cases in the Chinese mainland, not to mention countless others who were quarantined.
Ye Xin, 47, head nurse at the Guangdong Hospital of Traditional Chinese Medicine, died in March after contracting SARS while treating patients infected with the virus. Ye, together with nine other nurses, was posthumously awarded the Florence Nightingale Prize by the International Committee of the Red Cross in May for courage and dedication in the line of duty.
In an open letter to the country's nurses released on the eve of International Nurses Day, which falls on May 12 annually, Vice-Premier and Health Minister Wu Yi spoke highly of their contribution to improving public health in China.
"Nurses have consistently placed public health and people's lives before their own, carrying out their duties day and night to care for patients. Their professionalism has earned them praise, respect and trust from the people," says Wu, who was appointed minister of health in mid-April specifically to lead the fight against SARS.
Sun Ningling, a doctor at the People's Hospital, one of the first facilities quarantined in Beijing after 93 of its doctors and nurses became infected while treating SARS patients, says, "Even when my colleagues fell ill one by one, no one ever thought of withdrawing. Some continued to volunteer in the fight.
"Many people ask me why we doctors stick to our jobs in the face of lurking death. I reply with another question - Should a soldier back off in the face of a battle?"
Nonetheless, health workers were not the only group who rose to the challenge alongside their male colleagues when circumstances called.
Says Lu Ying, director of the Women and Gender Research Centre in Guangzhou, "Female migrant workers continued working in factories, and we went on with our 'care for female workers' activities in Dongguan and Shenzhen, offering legal counselling to those in need. We paid more attention to hygiene and sanitation. On one occasion, our counselling service drew more than 3,000 women workers." The professor of law is very proud of the women she encountered during the crisis.
In Beijing, Zhai Yan, 40, continued to visit public places to complete the legal procedures necessary to register a new organization that would provide social services addressing marriage and family issues, as well as crisis intervention support, in mid-April, when the epidemic was at its peak.
Her mother, who was looking after her school-aged daughter at the time, was very angry and asked her stop "running around". But she felt her responsibilities as a social worker more keenly.
"We are supposed to forge ahead in times of crisis. Besides, if I had still been a medical worker, I would no doubt have been at the forefront anyway," says the former doctor of paediatrics.
When she finally secured a business licence for her organization on April 18, her first thought was to offer psychological counselling to health workers. A hotline began operating on May 8.
Most of the calls from nurses reflected the troubled state of mind that she herself was experiencing, Zhai says.
"The nurses were faced with great pressure, not from working in such close proximity to the virus, but from worries for their family, their children in particular," she says.
"Men can stay away from home for a month or more without having to give much of an explanation, but women would be left feeling guilty in the same situation. I've heard a few voices suggesting that women should stay home, where they're supposed to belong, regardless of their abilities, needs or individual differences. This is unfair and preposterous," she says.
In Zhai's view, professional women are absolutely on a par with their male counterparts in the midst of a social crisis such as SARS. They shoulder even more responsibilities in society in terms of having to look after their families and children, in addition to doing their usual work. They hold up more than half the sky, she adds, even though some of what they do may not be reflected in the gross domestic product.
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