China is being accused of mistreating coronavirus nurses for propaganda

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A video intended as a tribute to China’s female medical workers backfired as people instead vented their frustration over the way Chinese state-owned media outlets use women as tools for propaganda.

The video, posted by Gansu Daily, a government-owned newspaper in Gansu province, showed over a dozen mask-wearing female nurses, who were weeping as their hair was shaved off. They were about to be sent to Hubei, the Chinese province worst hit by the coronavirus, where they would help treat patients. The video attempted to paint the women as “the most beautiful warriors” who fight the epidemic, praising their bravery as they sacrificed their hair so they could better wear protective gear when treating patients. But instead, the video was met with largely angry comments on China’s Twitter-like social network Weibo.

Many critics said that the way the nurses were treated was humiliating, not complimentary of their bravery. In one scene, a nurse averts her gaze so that she doesn’t have to see her newly cut-off ponytail in her hairdresser’s hands. In another shot, some female nurses had tears rolling down their faces after their haircut.

The video has now been deleted after the online backlash.

Chinese female nurse
A nurse who had her head shaved was seen crying in the video.
Image: Gansu Daily
Chinese female nurses
A nurse looks away to avoid seeing her freshly cut-off ponytail.
Image: Gansu Daily

“In the video, the people who shaved the women’s heads grabbed their ponytails roughly and just started shaving their hair using electronic clippers. Are you treating them as humans or some animals waiting to be shaved? I am so angry that my mind’s gone blank,” said a user (link in Chinese) on Weibo yesterday (Feb. 17), when the video started trending on the network.

“If you didn’t tell me they were medical workers, I would have thought they were some evil criminals who were going through this serious humiliation… Even their tears are used by the authorities to try to touch the audience, making them the illustration of the spirit of collectivism,” wrote Chen Mashu, an author for “Epoch Story,” an account on messaging app WeChat that publishes analyses and first-person accounts of social affairs.

In her article, which has been viewed more than 100,000 times, Chen noted other coverage that highlighted the sacrifices made by female workers who are fighting the coronavirus. In one, a nurse who is nine months pregnant (link in Chinese) insisted on working on the front lines; in another report (link in Chinese), a young female nurse went back to work less than 10 days after having an abortion. “The coverage made me think: Why does our media always like to use the sacrifices females make as a tool for propaganda? …for women who don’t cut their hair, aren’t pregnant and are healthy, do they not deserve to be mentioned?” wrote Chen.

The backlash against the video is one of several recent incidents that highlight how female medical staff, who account for over half of the front line workforce (link in Chinese), are suffering as they treat patients in Wuhan. One example: A group of female rights activists in China started a campaign to send menstrual pads and disposable underwear to female medical workers after reports surfaced that hospital supervisors wouldn’t buy them for them.

Some internet users also pointed out that only male workers, including policemen and male doctors, were featured in a series of popular posters promoting the spirit of fighting the virus. They started a hashtag “#seeing female workers,” (link in Chinese) asking people to pay more attention to the women on the front lines. “Women medical workers have their own names, they are not someone’s wife, daughter, or mother! Women are independent, they don’t have to live as attachments to others,” said a comment (link in Chinese) under the hashtag on Weibo.