For many of us, a lasting memory of Australia’s COVID-19 lockdowns will be about toilet paper shortages and insanely jacked up prices for hand sanitiser.
But there’s an untold story about the panic buying phenomenon. At the same time toilet paper disappeared off the shelves, so too did pads and tampons. And there are reports the supply is still disrupted.
That’s according to a new Periods in a Pandemic report launched today by the charity for girls’ equality Plan International. This research uncovered serious problems COVID-19 is causing for menstruation, not just here at home but also in every region in the world.
Period poverty is a big issue in Australia, impacting around 1 million Australians. There is now substantial evidence that COVID-19 has made the situation worse for those who already struggled to afford and source products to manage their periods safely and with dignity.
A whopping 51% of the 661 people who menstruate Plan International surveyed reported that period products have become much harder to find during the pandemic. They say home brands are first to go, leaving the higher end brands the only option left, resulting in many struggling families having to choose between going without the essentials, or breaking the bank.
Restrictions on purchasing also don’t factor in the varying needs of individuals, for those that are buying for families or have a heavier flow, with one young Australian women noting: “It was disheartening shops only allowed me to buy 1 and I then had to travel to other stores to get the required amount”.
On top of this, with all non-essential workplaces closed, those that can’t work from home left incomeless, and with the government’s stimulus package only just rolling into our bank accounts, money is tight. The result of this is mothers choosing between nappies for their baby, or pads for themselves.
Although one in five (20%) also noted the cost of period products has increased since the start of the pandemic – and while it may seem a nominal rise – it’s not simply about the extra $4.20 on the grocery bill, but also the added cost of pain medication, additional overnight pads, the limited availability of the cheaper products, and the pressure of ongoing costs during such an uncertain time.
According to one young woman: “During the first few weeks there was none on the shelves at all, I had to travel to several stores and pharmacies and still couldn’t get them, I in the end resorted to using a period cup.” While the cost effectiveness of reusable products may seem an appealing solution, the initial outright cost of sustainable menstrual cups at around $50 and item, or period underwear at $25-30 a pair, are far out of reach for those in need.
COVID-19 has also made finding facilities for changing and disposing of period products safely, privately and hygienically more difficult (one in four reported this) and even as the city opens up, many public facilities remain closed. One woman noted: “I am on the road and rely on public bathrooms and customer bathrooms. With more places shut, and closed to the public, I’ve been challenged finding appropriate bathrooms.”
For those experiencing homelessness during this time the situation is far worse. Although crisis centres are still open, many volunteers are choosing to self-isolate, and regular donations of produce are dwindling amid panic buying.
And as the economy suffers and the unemployment rate is peaking, those living close to the poverty line could be tipped over the edge.
Fantastic organisations like Share the Dignity, who collect menstrual products had to close their product donation drive in March and encourage cash donations instead. They are gearing up to reopen their drive in August, in anticipation of the greatest ever need due to COVID-19.
And community centres, workplaces, and universities, that usually offer free period products closed due to the new regulations, meaning many who menstruate are going without, resulting in use of unsafe methods to manage periods.
It is more important than ever that we continue to support organisations that provide basic menstrual hygiene essentials during this time to ensure no one has to go without.
Beyond our borders, the impacts of COVID-19 on menstrual hygiene management are being even more profoundly felt. Plan International surveyed 61 experts working in the field of menstrual hygiene management in 24 countries.
Their number one issue was lack of products, with three-quarters reporting they were unable to source period products right now. Two-thirds (68%) also reported access to facilities to clean and dispose of menstrual products is also a major problem.
And as we’ve seen here at home, prices of products have increased globally with a young women from Fiji noting: “Sometimes I have to forgo buying hygiene products as money will have to be used on food and bills more. Prices went up as soon as there was a confirmed case of COVID19 in Fiji.”
The experts have also reported a worsening of stigma, shaming or harmful cultural practices associated with menstruation. In the Solomon Islands a young woman expressed that a lack of access to WASH facilities has increased feelings of shame. She said: “Especially when I am not able to clean myself during water cuts. I feel embarrassed to walk around family.”
So, while we all laughed at the toilet paper hoarder memes and in a strange turn of events, toilet paper has become an unlikely symbol of this pandemic here in Australia, there’s been more serious issues going on under the surface.
Not being able to manage your period safely or with dignity is no joke. And it shouldn’t happen in 2020 – anywhere – pandemic, or not. It’s easy to step back and think “oh here’s just another terrible thing that’s happening because of COVID-19”, and while that’s true, you can do something about it.
You can donate products to local women’s shelters, include period products if you are organising community care baskets, and donate to organisations like Plan International who are right now distributing kits containing sustainable menstrual hygiene kits to those who need them most (in fact, you can even pay it forward and buy a kit for a disadvantaged girl here).
We need to stick together during this strange and tough time and look out for those who are struggling so that we can look back on these days and remember not just the great TP shortage of 2020, but the amazing acts of kindness the pandemic inspired as well.