Sanitary Pads for Wuhan’s Female Medics

No. 40

Hello from Chinarrative.

The coronavirus outbreak quickly overwhelmed Wuhan’s hospitals and medical staff. Under such dire circumstances, what happens to female health workers on the front line? How do they take care of their own personal needs such as menstruation?

This story, which originally appeared in Chinese on the popular nonfiction platform Renwu, provides some answers. In it, we meet a group of volunteers who went to great lengths to collect and deliver sanitary products to the battle-weary female nurses and doctors of Wuhan.

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Courtesy: Interviewee

Helping Wuhan Sisters Fight the Epidemic

By Youxuan Lai

Liang Yu was terrified when the epidemic broke out, worrying she would be infected and unable to go out. But Liang Yu found her life become different when she did something for other women and delivered real help after launching the #SistersFightEpidemic volunteering project.

She provided 338,317 sanitary pads and 202,209 pieces of disposable underwear for female doctors and nurses fighting on the front line.

Ignored Voices

Xiaoxiong was having her period and wanted to buy some pads online. Usually, it took less than a day to deliver them to her house. But today, she was told there was no stock. On Feb. 7, the epidemic was showing no signs of improvement. Given such unfavorable conditions in Beijing, she wondered what were things like in Hubei province — the center of the affected area and especially in Wuhan, which had been in lockdown for more than two weeks.

She searched for “affected areas” and “sanitary pads” on China’s Twitter-like platform Weibo to see if others paid attention to the issue. This is how she got to know Liang Yu. That same night, Liang Yu, a 24-year-old Shanghai woman, posed a question on Weibo about how female front-line medical staff were handling periods and if they had enough sanitary pads.

Days earlier, Liang Yu had watched a video and learned that medics in Wuhan had to go through 27 different steps to take off their protective clothing and disinfected their hands 12 times in a process that took up to half an hour. All in the video were women.

Liang Yu wondered how female health workers changed their pads when wearing and taking off clothes was so complicated. Or would they choose not to replace them at all in order not to waste protective clothing?

Liang Yu decided to donate some sanitary pads. Considering timing, it was better to buy products shipped from Hubei. Liang Yu searched on e-commerce platform Taobao, asking each merchant who list their place of delivery as Hubei if they had any stock. “I want to buy a lot,” she informed them.

The first shop, Ladycare, was based in Hubei. On hearing of Liang Yu’s idea, the factory called back workers and paid them triple wages to work overtime, gathered all the inventory and insisted on not charging Liang Yu.

With this supply in hand, Liang Yu contacted a hospital in Wuhan through one of her friends. The hospital was pleasantly surprised — even a little incredulous that someone would donate pads — and told her it was exactly what was needed. Two days later, the batch of pads arrived at that hospital.

What about other hospitals? Liang Yu composed another post on Weibo. With 270,000 followers at that time, she usually received about 100 comments on each post, but this one had more than 1,600 comments.

Suddenly, countless messages poured in, most from front-line female medical workers saying they had asked their supervisors but still had no pads for days. Others told how they ate and drank nothing during their eight-hour shifts because they dared not go to the toilet. One head nurse had even bought diapers.

Some were reluctant to use pads and gave them to patients first. Others had to use plastic wrap in lieu of pads. Medical teams who came in from other provinces to support Hubei colleagues faced even more difficulties as they came in a rush with no time for preparation.

With days of rain and snow in Hubei, no underwear could dry. Many female medics had no underwear and could only wear protective clothing with menstrual blood inside as they had no clothes for replacement — items in the quarantine zone could not be worn elsewhere in the hospital.

Liang Yu composed another post based on these messages, calling for more attention to women medical workers. That post was shared 17,000 times. She received more messages female doctors and nurses in Wuhan, some asking for help, others wanting to talk.

One medic requested Liang Yu to give them a small number of pads, just enough for five girls. Reading her message, Liang Yu felt distressed and sad.

Also on Feb. 7, Xiaoxiong connected with Liang Yu and offered to join her in deliver pads to medics.

Their work was trivial and repetitive — making phone calls. They’d call hospitals and inquire if there was any need for sanitary pads. They’d contact factories and ask if they had any inventory. They’d call transportation companies and ask if it were possible to deliver the goods.

They searched for hospitals that had sought donations online and requested help through the National Health Commission. They called over 20 hospitals in Wuhan and then hospitals in other cities in Hubei province one by one.

Usually, they were turned down, as most hospitals claimed: “Hospitals need masks and protective clothing instead of everyday essentials necessities.” Gradually, they discovered a rule: it was more likely to be declined when the person answering the phone was male.

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It’s hard for men to understand the importance of sanitary pads. They believe the pads were little different from diapers. Some even asked: “Can men wear sanitary pads?”

The only man who actively responded to their donations was the head of the command center in Xiaogan City. He had graduated from Peking University majoring in social work. Later, Liang Yu learned that Ladycare had offered to donate to two major hospitals in Wuhan before she launched the campaign, only to be rejected on the grounds that the pads weren’t needed.

Xiaoxiong realized the voice of women was being ignored. There was demand for pads. But some women felt embarrassed to express the need as they thought having the period a very personal matter, while others were more open. However, these weak voices faded when the people they turned to didn’t convey the message to the procurement department, or the department deemed the requirement unimportant. After all, during an epidemic, hospitals prioritize medical supplies and de-emphasized women’s need for sanitary pads.

So, Liang Yu and Xiaoxiong framed their inquiry in another way.

They first asked:

We’d like to donate sanitary pads and do you need some?

Then they changed the question into a statement:

We have many sanitary pads. How many female employees do you have and what is your address?

They offered no choice, but prompting the person answering the phone to remember that there were female employees whose needs should be addressed. If they were rejected, they would make another attempt, asking:

Is there any female staff member nearby? Could you put her on the phone?

Based on the figures obtained from calls, Liang Yu and Xiaoxiong roughly estimated there were many front-line female medics. More than 5,000 in Wuhan Tongji Hospital, about 5,700 in Wuhan Union Hospital, about 1,300 in Wuhan Jinyintan Hospital, about 600 in Wuhan Hankou Hospital, about 1,000 in the Zhongfa Xincheng branch of Wuhan Tongji Hospital, about 16,600 in Xiaogan City ... Women accounted for between 60% to 70% of all medical workers in the hospitals they contacted, even exceeding 80% in some maternity hospitals.

As of Feb. 7, none of these hospitals had received donations of pads or other sanitary products. On Feb. 8, Liang Yu formed a volunteer team named #SistersFightEpidemic, dedicated to helping front-line female medics having their periods. It was time, she thought, to do something for her sisters.

Courtesy: Interviewee

Cry but Keep Fighting

Liang Yu wanted to raise funds as early as she composed her first post calling for attention. A fan circle team contacted her and wanted to raise money jointly, but she soon learned that individuals were not qualified to raise money publicly.

At first, she thought about paying for pads on her own or with some good friends, as they’re not expensive. But the large number of female medics made her realize that it was not what she and her friends alone could accomplish.

She thought of raising money as a group. According to regulations, she would first have to find a qualified foundation. With the help of a volunteer graduate of Peking University, the Lingshan Charity Foundation founded by Peking University alumni was willing to help Liang Yu set up a fund-raising drive.

The project planned to raise over 2.2 million yuan (over $310,000) to purchase 100,000 sanitary pads and 100,000 pieces of disposable underwear, cover logistics expenses of about 100,000 yuan and contingency funds of 50,000 yuan.

That’s not a small figure, but it would only satisfy the need of a small portion of female medics. Giving each woman six sanitary pads, the 100,000 pads would only supply 16,700 people. Allotting each woman 20 disposable panties, 100,000 pieces would only reach 5,000 people. If the team spent the money, the purchased items would run out within a month.

Liang Yu remembered one male volunteer asked them why they only offered three days’ worth of pads to the women, instead of giving enough for at least four days. Liang Yu felt powerless, because she could only give the bare minimum in order to outreach a greater number of women.

They started fundraising on Feb.11, the day they were interviewed by China’s People Magazine.

Nervous and worried, Liang Yu would check the total funds every five minutes.

Se’a, who was in charge of promoting their campaign, was also anxious. As a student at Shenzhen University, she had set up a small company specializing in sex education and has always followed the popular science of the female body. From a survey, she found there was basically no pads and other sanitary products on the material allocation list during the Wenchuan earthquake relief (in Sichuan province in 2008).

After the outbreak of Covid-19, she was worried that need would be neglected again, and that’s how she found Liang Yu on Weibo and joined the team.

Before the fundraising, Se’ a and team members spent a day and a half writing an article, and planned to release it on the second day of the fund-raising. They polished and edited it repeatedly, worrying that the information wasn’t clear enough. She asked several bloggers on social media to help share the article, just in case only a few people noticed this campaign.

There was no need to worry. Waking up in the morning, the team found donation had reached almost 2.4 yuan within 13 hours. They rewrote the article by Se’ a to reflect updates.

On Feb. 12, Liang Yu and Se’ a no longer needed to call the hospitals, because many hospitals were now turning to them, including some in Henan and Hunan provinces. Even female police officers requested some pads.

Some volunteers added so many new WeChat friends that their cell phone crashed. On Feb. 12 alone, female medics in 165 hospitals sought help, far exceeding the amount of material that could be bought from the donation. They had to temporarily close their help-seeking channel.

An inexpressible and complex feeling fell over them. They’d finally brought once-neglected women’s voice to daylight. But they were also left feeling powerless. Such a large amount of need implied that it was not only women in Hubei, not only female medics, but all women on the front line against the epidemic across China that were short of sanitary products.

Liang Yu dreamed to co-ordinate an NGO project for women's rights in her 50s. Unexpectedly, she put it in action at the age of 24. She was pushed to a leading position. “In fact, it distressed me,” Liang Yu told People. Certainly, pushed by the numerous requests for information and urgent demands, she was harried and tired. The team also had to face some unfriendly voices.

One member of the media asked Liang Yu if the sensitive word “menstruation” had hindered their activities. That interviewer was also a woman. Liang Yu did not understand how “menstruation” had become a sensitive word and that even women felt ashamed by it.

Some questioned why medics could not buy pads themselves. Why couldn’t they put up with the situation? Why couldn’t they just order online?

Such questions irritated Xiaoxiong. “This is totally a let-them-eat-cake kind of attitude,” she said. After all, ordinary citizens in Wuhan could hardly go out of their homes, never mind medical workers in the field. With patient numbers soaring, health workers had no time to eat or sleep, let alone buy sanitary pads. Meanwhile, most shops were closed, supplies were scarce and delivery services suspended. Female medical workers had no choice but to endure.

Liang Yu heard many stories from doctors and nurses, and was also angry at some messages. Some could be shared, so she posted on Weibo for public discussion. Those that couldn’t, she had to digest on her own.

Liang Yu had been angry for years. She considered herself a “normal” person from childhood and believed women were able to say and do the same as men with no need to consider gender issues.

“I lived how everybody said a regular person should live. But when I grew up, I couldn’t live that way anymore. Just because I am a woman and thus, I can’t live like a normal person. I strongly oppose it. For example, men may think they’re not the father if their child does not take his surname. But as a woman, if I hold the same opinion, there is something wrong with me. Some people scold me every time I say and do the things that men do,” she said.

One night, she couldn’t take it anymore, and cried for an hour when calling a psychological counseling hotline. “After that, I thought ‘Forget it’ — just keep fighting.”

On the Road

Dizi, a Wuhan girl, owns a car, and her mother is the driver. Dizi can drive, but she doesn’t have a license. She joined the Wuhan volunteers and her mom delivered goods with her. For safety reasons, most parents locked their children at home. After the lockdown, Dizi’s mother didn’t seclude her away at home. Instead, her mom allowed her to accompany her on drives across the city.

They delivered masks, alcohol, chickens, ducks, fish and vegetables. This time, they transported pads. Dizi said that her mother was cool. “Yes, someone should have delivered pads a long time ago,” she said when she first heard they were going to carry pads. 

The biggest obstacle in the whole fundraising and donation process was logistics. #SistersFightEpidemic team all mentioned this issue.

Pads cannot be listed as medical materials or materials in short supply, and thus they cannot be transported through the “green” channel (open channels for expediting transportation of essential items). It was difficult to find a logistics company willing to undertake transportation, and in most cases, they had to rely on volunteers’ private cars. Sometimes, it took a whole day to deliver to a hospital, and sometimes, the pads still couldn’t be delivered even after days of transportation.

On other occasions, a donation would come from or be needed to be transported to another city in Hubei. Cross-city transportation faced more difficulties. If the driver came to Wuhan from the neighboring city of Huanggang, he would need to undergo quarantine for 14 days. In other words, the driver was no longer available after transporting goods once. For that reason, drivers were an extremely precious but consumable resource that required careful use.

The demand for help was changing in real-time. The intermediary manager told People that it happened a lot that a hospital asked for 5,000 sanitary pads yesterday but had no need the next day as they had obtained materials from other channels.

The form for donated materials was updated several times a day, but still failed to keep up with the changes. The logistics team always didn’t know whether to deliver and where to go until the last minute. Sometimes, the team arrived at the hospital, only to find pads were no longer needed there.

During the lockdown, the road conditions in Wuhan were unpredictable. Most warehouses were in the suburbs, while hospitals were in the urban areas. Obtaining a permit to go from the suburbs to the urban areas was a problem. Many roads were blocked, while the map did not show signs sometimes.

Always, they drove, found a barricade halfway, and had to look around for paths. Today, there was no need for a pass at this junction today, but tomorrow, it may be needed. Today, one could get out of the residence, but tomorrow, one probably couldn’t. This pass worked today, but tomorrow, it may not work. No one knew the answer.

Everything depends on luck on the road, Dizi said. After the lockdown, she and a dozen young people formed a volunteer motorcade. Once, they transported vegetables, hairpins, alcohol, watering cans, 23 tons of sugar orange and 30 tons of bananas. Team members include so-called subculture youth — a DJ, a photographer, graffiti artists, a game-center owner and a motorcycle fan.

They also helped the #SistersFightEpidemic team deliver pads. One day, the boys were worried as they needed to transport a huge number of pads. “Why do girls need so many pads?” they exclaimed, while trying to figure out how to load in the car.

Dizi was a little surprised that they knew so little about menstruation. She explained, and the boys suddenly realized: “Oh, it’s not that girls only need one pad a month!” they said.

That moment impressed Dizi deeply. When young men willing to help women deliver pads still know so little about menstruation, how much could those middle-aged men answering the phone in the hospital know about periods? She could partly understand why they refused. More communication is needed between the two genders.

A total of 25 boxes of sanitary pads were squeezed into an SUV, and another 15 into a sedan. The boxes were twisted, but it didn’t matter. On Feb. 17, Dizi and volunteers sent them to 17 hospitals in Wuhan. On Feb. 19, they dispatched another 17 in less than two hours.

As of Feb. 19, feminine products had been delivered to 44 hospitals, only completing 26% of 165 hospitals asking for help. Dizi and her team were working efficiently. They were able to pack 25 boxes into a sedan.

Every team member mentioned Dizi during the interview, marveling at how she delivered all the goods on time under such difficult road conditions in Wuhan. So incredible. Dizi didn’t think it was hard, but said it was relatively easy as all hospitals she delivered goods to were in the urban area of Wuhan.

But what would happen next? Dizi had no clue. She got used to exhaust-fume-filled mornings of Wuhan. But everything changed after lockdown. Few people were on the road, and the only busy places were pharmacies and supermarkets. She was a great fan of beef rice noodles made by her favorite restaurant.

One day, when delivering goods, she went around a street near there specially to take a look. Most stores were closed, but she suddenly saw a wisp of smoke rising from a store. Approaching, she discovered it wasn’t her favorite restaurant. At that moment, she wanted to cry.

On Feb. 12, on the request of Liang Yu, Dizi left the residence and collected sanitary pads across Wuhan for sisters of the Hainan medical team. She specially wore a Naples team scarf, of which she had many.

This one had “Forza Napoli Sempre” — or “Go Naples, Always!” — on it. Whenever Naples won, Dizi would sing its fan song loudly. She felt that it was for them — women fighting for women:

Di tempo ne è passato, ma sono ancora qua, e oggi come allora, difendo la città. (Time has passed, but I am still here, and today as then, defending the city.)

Courtesy: Interviewee

Sisters’ Strength

The publicity poster of the #SistersFightEpidemic team was pink at first, but Liang Yu objected. She wanted to use blue. She would like to take this opportunity to tell everyone that the representative color of women can also be blue.

“Isn’t Elsa in Frozen blue? She is the idol of post-2000s girls. Who said blue is not suitable for girls? No color can represent a gender,” she said.

The font was round at first, and Liang Yu opposed it.

She hoped that in the poster, there was no round word, or pink and lovely symbols. She thought about changing one stroke of the Chinese character 心 (heart) into a sword but used pads instead to echo with the theme.

Everything presented and conveyed was the power of women.

After establishing the team, Liang Yu chose #SistersFightEpidemic as the name. Xiaoxiong was worried then and reminded Liang Yu to be cautious.

She told her:

All our efforts for women will be in vain once views and positions are exploited, misled and distorted. You could just ignore the voices of opposition. Do what we want to do and tell everyone clearly what you are doing.

They all knew that it was not easy to this point. Fifteen days earlier, over 60 volunteers from all over China were total strangers. Fifteen days later, they still did not know most members’ name, identity, and appearance, but knew that they were working for the same thing, which was to help front-line women find their voices that must be heard.

Now when receiving the pads, the girls in the medical team were willing to call the volunteers “sisters.” When hearing that the delivery team come, the girls of Xinjiang Dushanzi Medical Team trotted down the stairs with long red banners as greetings.

Though there were only two boxes of sanitary pads, the girls happily put them in the middle, and held the banner that said: Fight the Epidemic, Bravely Assume Responsibility.

Some doctors were still wearing protective clothing when receiving sanitary pads. Seeing the volunteers, they told them not to worry and that they had just changed into clean protective clothing and hadn’t entered the quarantine zone yet.

After signing their names and receiving the goods, they said thank you and rushed to work. Liang Yu felt that it was the women’s warmth that helped the volunteers persist. “I call you as sisters and really regard you as a sister,” she said.

Volunteers call each other “sister.” Dizi liked the word, and she said that she had never experienced such a strong feeling of connection before. When Se’ a sent first private message to Liang Yu on Weibo, both were very polite and addressed each other respectfully. After several sentences, Liang Yu suddenly called her “sister.”

From that moment on, Se’ a felt different. It was the first time she called other sisters. This name brought her numerous strengths. From that moment, whenever a new member entered the group, Se’ a would immediately shout:

Sister! Would you please help us out?

And the other party also responded enthusiastically. Once, Se’ a discovered that someone she had called “sister” for days was actually a boy.

Abu was one of the few men in charge of the #SistersFightEpidemic. Born in the 1980s, he was one of the older members of the team. During the quarantine, he had nothing to do at home and happened on the activity by chance. At first, he just wanted to do something, but he said he was “really shocked” after joining.

He managed the supplies team and liaised with the manufacturers. He said the workload in four days felt as heavy as in one month at his job. Therefore, he was surprised how these young girls were so energetic, working for more than 10 hours a day and eating only one meal. Twenty-four hours a day, whenever he said something, there was always someone online. He describes them as “very brave.” The fire burning in these women also ignited his enthusiasm.

As a male member #SistersFightEpidemic, Abu felt that his participation was represented a voice on behalf of men. He was willing to work for women, pay attention to women, understand their needs and power. “I don’t take it as the rise of women. I think it is good enough for society to treat them normally and equally,” he said.

But it’s still women who know most about women. Xiaoxiong said:

When we come as sisters, there are things they don’t need to say, but we can understand and are willing to do it for them.

Liang Yu said that she was terrified when the epidemic broke out, only cared about herself and worried whether she would be infected and unable to go out. But Liang Yu has discovered that her life became different when she really did something for other women and provided real help.

Every woman fighting on the front line was alive, real and concrete. Liang Yu was not sure whether busyness made her forget those worries or whether these women reduced her fear of virus in here. “In short, I feel less afraid,” she said.

As of Feb. 20, #SistersFightEpidemic donated 338,317 pieces of period panties, 202,209 disposable underwear, 2,880 pads and 700 hand cream for female doctors and nurses fighting, covering 79 hospitals and medical teams and over 60,000 medics.

The transportation of goods continues. On Liang Yu's appeal, more groups, organizations, brands and individuals have joined the operation.

China Women’s Development Foundation collected and shipped 40,000 packages of pads to Wuhan. Sanitary napkin and baby diaper maker Hengan Group promised to donate 2.6 million pads and 200,000 period panties to Hubei every month until the epidemic was over ... Liang Yu said that she learned many medical teams put sanitary pads into the luggage of female medics before departure. 

On Feb. 19, Nerve Nourishment, the WeChat official account of the #SistersFightEpidemic team, published an article explaining the situation faced by front-line female doctors and nurses, discussed menstrual blood and asked:

It’s all is blood. Why is some superior and other inferior?

At the end of the article, they wrote:

Women account for half of the population, and we hope normal parts of the female body will no longer be labeled as ‘special’ and that menstruation will no longer be a physical shame after the epidemic, when the whole nation shares a common future. We don’t have to talk about menstruation every day, but we hope that the time when the word period couldn’t even be mentioned will truly become a thing of the past.

Liang Yu always remembers the day of Feb. 11. She successfully launched an online fundraising campaign and one female medical worker asked if there had been any donations of hand cream. She thought it wonderful that women could finally stop being so reserved and feel that asking for something was melodramatic and something to be shy about.

She said:

Asking for something isn’t a big deal. Women can speak out about whatever they want.

Translation: Shuiming Jing. With English editing contributions from Isabel Wang.