Kieran Seager 23rd June 2020
Figures released by Public Health England (PHE) have revealed a shocking statistic; young women aged 20-29 are more than twice as likely to develop Covid symptoms than their male peers. Although there’s little difference in the number of deaths, young women are in greater danger of infection.
This statistic contradicts everything we’ve learned about Covid-19 so far. The evidence suggests that men are more likely to die, and the elderly are far more susceptible. Despite this, there’s a gendered difference among young people that is being ignored.
When the virus first arrived in the UK, a dangerous misconception began to circulate that young, healthy people were somehow ‘resistant’ to Covid-19. This was largely a response to the higher death rates among the elderly. As the number of Covid-related deaths began to skyrocket in the UK, this mistaken belief in ‘youth immunity’ quickly began to unravel. In March, the Director-General of the World Health Organisation (WHO) warned, in no uncertain terms, that “younger people are not spared”.
In the last few months, Covid-19 has swung a scythe through countless communities. Although the elderly are more susceptible to the serious effects of the illness, the young are by no means immune.
But the question remains; why are young women at greater risk of infection than similarly aged men? The answer may be surprisingly simple and reflects a fundamental failing of the government’s response to the crisis.
A total of 90% of nurses in the UK are women, according to a study commissioned by the Royal College of Nursing (RCN). For social care, too, women constitute the overwhelming majority of direct-care workers. They are on the frontline of the battle to contain Covid-19, but their work is often held cheap.
There have been nights when I’ve found it difficult to sleep due to the fears surrounding Covid-19
Contrary to their overwhelming presence in healthcare, the RCN found that “women are under-represented in leadership positions in the NHS and across the medical profession more widely”. By consequence, they’re more likely to occupy the frontline jobs that place them squarely in the path of Covid-19.
This is especially true for young nurses, whose numbers have been rising in recent years according to the Nuffield Trust. Some are inexperienced, and others are trapped under the glass ceiling. In both cases, young women rarely have the luxury of safer leadership positions.
Now more than ever, the government must stand by its healthcare professionals. Yet, as the Tory administration fumbled its way through the PPE scandal, young nurses and carers were left by the wayside. Although large numbers of protective equipment are finally arriving in UK hospitals, their quality is often subpar.
Emma*, a 26-year-old nurse at Homerton University Hospital, explains: “Prior to the pandemic, healthcare workers would have been disciplined for using the PPE we’re now being advised to wear when treating patients.” In the wake of inadequate protection and a rising death toll, young medical professionals are under immense strain. For her and her colleagues, she says, “The pandemic has been extremely anxiety-provoking. There have been nights when I’ve found it difficult to sleep due to the fears surrounding Covid-19.”
The elastic snapped off the mask straight away
Outside of the NHS, the private sector is also struggling. Helena McBride is a 23-year-old care worker. Like NHS nurses, she faces patients daily who have tested positive for Covid-19. With the media’s cameras focused mostly on the NHS, it’s easy to forget that private care workers are dealing with the same hardships. With regards to PPE, private companies often find themselves second in line.
“We used to order our PPE directly from the supplier,” Helena says, “but now the NHS has priority, so we have to request it and see whether the NHS has a greater need before us.” Even when the PPE does arrive, it’s not always fit for use. “I get given face masks in packs of 10”, she says, “and, last week, three of those were unusable. The elastic snapped off the mask straight away.”
Alongside shoddy protective equipment, being young is a poor defence for nurses and carers. “If I were to voice that I was uncomfortable, management would not see any justification in it”, Helena explains. “Being in a low-risk group, there was no conversation with me at any point from management on whether I felt comfortable treating Covid patients face to face. It was just expected and given to me.”
I worry that undervaluing our work will push some of us to choose a different career
In the NHS, Emma* says that younger nurses are in a similar position. “They undervalue us because we are not considered as vulnerable”, she says, “but younger nurses will be vital to the success of the NHS in the years post-Covid, and I worry that undervaluing our work will push some of us to choose a different career.”
The RCN notes that one-third of NHS nurses are set to retire by 2026. The younger generation is the most valuable asset the NHS has to keep its wheels turning after this exodus. This is a critical moment for public healthcare, and disregarding young nurses could be detrimental to the future of the NHS.
But for years, this is exactly how successive Tory governments have treated their nurses. Unsurprisingly, gutting the NHS of funding has left it ill-equipped to retain its workforce. A 2018 study by the Health and Social Care Committee found that nurses often feel undervalued. On top of that, staffing shortages and increased workloads were also cited as the main reasons for nurses leaving the NHS. Under the weight of a global pandemic, it’s unlikely that working conditions have improved.
The large number of Covid-19 cases among young women implies that across the country, young healthcare workers are under immense strain. A residual belief in ‘youth immunity’ could be part of the problem. Young nurses and carers, overwhelmingly women, are being sent to fight Covid-19 with little more than their youth and low-quality PPE to protect them.
Clap for Carers has been an earnest display of the nation’s gratitude. The government would do well to follow suit by acknowledging the work of young healthcare professionals and providing the PPE needed to protect them from the dangers of their job.
*Name has been changed at the request of the interviewee
Kieran Seager 23rd June 2020