Women On The Frontlines Of COVID-19: Spotlight On Women Health Workers In The UN SARI Treatment Centre

The success of the UN SARI team in taking care of their patients is further demonstrated by their consideration for their patients’ mental health.

key feature of the COVID-19 pandemic is the paradox that although women make up most of the global health workforce they are too often, visibly absent from leadership positions in the sector. In Nigeria, women comprise an estimated 60% of health-workers yet women’s representation in leadership in the health sector is low. Within the UN System, women make up the majority of workers in the newly established UN Severe Acute Respiratory Isolation (SARI) Treatment Centre, working day and night to ensure the health and well-being of UN Staff throughout the pandemic.

Balancing Saving Lives and Care Duties

The UN SARI Treatment Centre is made up of a dedicated team of 19 health workers ranging from doctors, nurses, and medical scientists, including 14 women and 5 men. The nurses work in shifts, with the day shift from 8 am – 5 pm, and the night shift from 5 pm to 8 am. With only two doctors on-site, Dr. Ogenna Okeke and Dr. Boyiga Bodinga Nuga, they each need to take turns working 24-hour shifts.

With such unsociable and demanding hours, the challenge of balancing the duty of saving lives with care work in the home is one that comes to mind when speaking with the UN SARI team. “Those roles are still my roles”, explains Dr. Okeke referring to the need to take care of her family and home. This view is echoed by the rest of the team, including Nurse Adenike Greene who recalls that, “lots of sacrifices were made on the first day of resumption in the facility. I had to call my husband to tell him I would not be home that evening to look after our baby”.

When asked how her life has changed since the start of the pandemic, Nurse Brenda Ifeanyichukwu simply responds, “It’s been crazy – having to deal with four boys at home and continue working. I don’t know how we do it”. The experiences of the women in the UN SARI team demonstrate that balancing care duties between men and women in the home is essential for a healthy and functioning society.

 However, the fear of putting their children and other family members at risk of the both the virus itself, and fear of stigma within the community was mentioned as one of the most difficult parts of the job. Nurse Vivian Ifeoma did not tell her children about her job for the first five months of working to protect herself and her family from potential backlash from the community. Concerned by news from across the globe of health workers becoming infected with the virus, Nurse Stella Anyakorah explains, “It has been so challenging being a mother and handling Covid-19 patients. I have to find ways to protect myself and my baby”. To manage this, she takes extra precautions to ensure she has disinfected herself before interacting with their household. 

Key Achievements: 100% Patient Recovery and Strong Team Morale

Despite the initial anxieties of working on the frontlines of a new and deadly pandemic, the women in the UN SARI team have demonstrated commendable resilience and success in fulfilling their duties. The team are proud to boast 100% recovery amongst patients, with no infections recorded amongst the staff, attributed in part to strict adherence to infection prevention control (IPC) standards.

The success of the UN SARI team in taking care of their patients is further demonstrated by their consideration for their patients’ mental health. “We reassure them and encourage them to call their families”, said Nurse Winifred Aboki as she describes how many patients enter the facility feeling anxious and afraid. In coping with their own stress, the UN SARI team explained that a strong team morale helps them get through difficult times, which is further supported by the provision of recreational facilities and an in-house counsellor.

Building Back Better: Capacity Development, Community Outreach, Adapting Work Cultures

Despite the tragic loss of life and devastating economic consequences, the Covid-19 pandemic is widely seen as an opportunity for governments to lead in “Building Back Better,” and step-up efforts to address the inequalities that have been amplified.  In their vision for a more equal future, the women health works at the UN SARI Centre would like to see increased investment in building the capacity of female health workers.

This includes increased opportunities for women health workers to share best practices and to benefit from training workshops for career progression. Women health workers have demonstrated that they are our best bet for navigating future health crises and ensuring that their skills are further harnessed is paramount.

Communication channels should be provided for women health workers to ensure their experiences feed into community engagement and sensitization efforts, which is essential for maintaining an effective response to the pandemic. Persistent stigma coupled with growing laxness around COVID-19 measures pose a threat to progress. According to UN SARI staff, female health workers should be at the forefront of educating communities on the persistent risk due to their expertise and the roles they often hold as carers in their families. This must also be met by concerted efforts to shift cultural norms around women’s leadership from high-level decision-making spheres to the grassroots.

Staff at the UN SARI Treatment Centre also note the invaluable need for balance at home to enable them to rest and fulfil their duties. In view of this, healthcare institutions should recognize the need for flexible work hours. On a wider societal level, advocacy for a balance in care work between men and women must be amplified by government, development partners, civil society, and the private sector. Building back better means a recognition that healthy homes are the responsibility of everyone, girls and boys, women, and men.

Practice What You Preach: Gender Equality within the UN System

The experiences around the burden of unpaid care work and opportunities for career progression should also be considered as the UN looks to advance gender equality inside the organization itself. Whilst the UN SARI clinic is made up of more women, male heads of agencies (HOAs) out-represent female HOAs in the UN Country Team (UNCT) in Nigeria. The UNCT has committed to mainstreaming gender equality and the upcoming UNCT SWAP Gender Scorecard process will further look at how gender equality and the empowerment of women is being mainstreamed by the UNCT in its policies and programs. This initiative is a key step in the right direction towards ensuring that the UN’s efforts to advance gender equality in Nigeria are also reflected at the level of the UNCT.

The female health workers of the UN SARI Treatment Centre continue to successfully serve in one of the most unprecedented health care emergencies of recent times. The gendered implications of working within such a challenging environment must be addressed to ensure the safety of healthcare workers and their patients. Furthermore, recognizing the achievements of female healthcare workers during this pandemic provides an invaluable platform to advocate for women’s leadership in Nigeria, which faces a crisis in gender equality on several fronts. In the words of Dr. Boyiga Bodinga Nuga, the strides made since the Centre officially opened demonstrate that, “when women are given the opportunity to lead, they do so with excellence”. Government and development partners, including the UN, can work to ensure that gender equality is placed at the centre of all Covid-19 response and recovery efforts, whilst drawing on women’s abilities to accelerate progress.



UN entities involved in this initiative
UN Women
United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women
World Health Organization