The Current

How understanding women's pandemic experiences can help build a better post-COVID world

A Canadian author who has written about women’s experiences during the pandemic says she wanted to record their stories because the health crisis has shone a light on the inequities they face.

Lauren McKeon's new book examines challenges women faced during the pandemic

Lauren McKeon is deputy editor at Reader’s Digest Canada and the author of several books. (Yuli Scheidt)

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A Canadian author who has written about women's experiences during the pandemic says she wanted to record their stories to shine a light on the inequities they've faced throughout the health crisis.

"Whenever there's a huge crisis, we've seen historically that we don't often hear women's stories," said Lauren McKeon, author and deputy editor at Reader's Digest Canada.

"Women have played such a huge role in the pandemic — from leadership to front-line essential workers — and they've also been the ones who arguably have lost the most. And I think that we need to honour those stories."

It's no secret the pandemic has taken a heavy toll on women, particularly those working low-income jobs in hard-hit sectors such as hospitality, retail and food services.

An RBC analysis published in March found that almost half-a-million Canadian women who lost their jobs during the pandemic hadn't returned to work as of January. Nearly 100,000 women aged 20 or older had left the workforce entirely, compared to less than 10,000 men who left the labour market.

Many women have had to juggle work and child-care responsibilities during the pandemic. (Joe Scarnici/Adobe Stock)

Women have also had to take on extra child-care responsibilities, some while juggling work, as the pandemic has intermittently forced daycares and schools around the country to close.

McKeon explores the challenges women have faced during the pandemic, and their resilience, in her book Women of the Pandemic: Stories from the Frontlines of COVID-19.

Women experience pandemic in diverse ways 

McKeon said she spoke to many working mothers for her book, who have had to balance child-care responsibilities with their jobs, which ranged from developing vaccines to working as grocery store clerks. 

She found that while many were impacted by the pandemic in similar ways, their experiences have also been quite diverse.

Pramie Ramroop dressed in PPE. The food processing plant worker says she and her colleagues worked seven days a week in 2020 to keep food on the table for Canadians. (Submitted by Pramie Ramroop)

Some women, herself included, have been able to work from home over the last year. But others "have been forced into vulnerable positions," she said.

Pramie Ramroop, who McKeon profiled for her book, has worked at a food processing plant in Mississauga, Ont., for more than two decades. 

She told The Current that the pandemic has been "very scary" for her, especially because people have to work together in close quarters. The plant has put safety measures in place, she said, including temperature checks, face shields, mask and lots of sanitization.

But it's been hard work, and she didn't get any time off during 2020, she said.

"We had to work just to keep food on the shelf for Canadians," Ramroop said. "We were working seven days a week just to keep the shelves full, not to have any food shortage. So we were working really hard."

There are also many women who have continued working in hospitals throughout the pandemic — not as medical staff, but as employees who do cleaning work, meal preparation and more.

Similar work for different pay

Cora Mojica, a dietary aide at Vancouver General Hospital, is among them. 

She told The Current her work has changed a lot since COVID-19 struck. She has to be extra careful these days, ensuring she's wearing the proper PPE and following safety protocols at all times.

"It's a scary, scary feeling," she said. "We really have to be vigilant to stay safe and at the same time protect the patients." 

Cora Mojica has been working as a dietary aide at Vancouver General Hospital throughout the pandemic. (Submitted by Cora Mojica)

Before COVID-19, many of her colleagues were working two or three jobs to make ends meet, Mojica said. Now, they're only allowed to work in one location, to prevent the virus from spreading.

As part of her job, Mojica prepares food for, and cleans up dirty dishes from, a long-term care site, she said. While some employees at the long-term care facility have received a wage top-up during the pandemic, she has not.

"It's kind of unequal, really, because … we're all doing the same thing," she said. "It just so happened that those who … are just serving the food, they are the ones getting the top up, not everyone."

Many women that I spoke to … recoil at the idea of normal.... Why not use everything that we've learned as a blueprint for something better?- Lauren McKeon

As Canada keeps its sights set on returning to normal life, McKeon said we should re-evaluate what we want the post-pandemic world to look like.

"Obviously we all want this pandemic to end, but so many women that I spoke to … recoil at the idea of normal," she said.

"Why not use everything that we've learned as a blueprint for something better? And I think to do that, to move forward with our most vulnerable in mind first … we need to hear those stories and we need to hear their voices."

Written by Kirsten Fenn. Produced by Idella Sturino and Cameron Perrier.

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