Melinda Gates has urged governments to partner with local, grassroots women’s groups during the COVID-19 pandemic, after penning a piece on how historically, diseases have pushed marginalised people into situations where they are vulnerable to further exploitation.
Though COVID-19 is gender blind, Gates writes, it is not gender-neutral, meaning; it has not equally impacted both men and women. Gender, race, caste, and class have also contributed to the impact it has had globally.
Gates notes the horrifying realities faced by some women; including women in labour being turned away from over-crowded hospitals, unemployed or underemployed domestic workers who have no government welfare support, and young girls who are denied an education due to systemic problems of access to technology, and traditional beliefs regarding the need for them to access such services.
Gates penned her call to action in Foreign Affairs, a journal that focuses on foreign policy and global affairs from an American perspective.
She urged policymakers to recognise and acknowledge the disparity of impact the pandemic is having on men and women, and ensure that prioritising better health care systems for women will build back more prosperous, more prepared, and more equal.
She noted research showing how in low and middle-income nations, the cutback in maternal care during COVID-19 could claim the lives of up to 113,000 women.
She also urged governments to consider sexual and reproductive health care as essential services. In 2014, during the hight of the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone, maternal mortality were mostly caused by the fact that many women were being forced to give brith at home, without any medical healthcare support.
“Health ministers need to find ways to provide safe maternal care even in pandemic conditions,” she wrote.
”In some countries, that might mean designating separate health facilities—some for those suffering from COVID-19, others for mothers and newborns who are COVID-free. In other places, it may be easier and safer to bring the expertise of the clinic to the mothers themselves.
Reproductive healthcare is also important, Gates believes. “Protecting the contraceptive supply chain is crucial, too. Early estimates also suggest the pandemic will cause 49 million additional women to go without contraceptives, leading to 15 million additional unplanned pregnancies. Part of the responsibility for addressing this rests with the international community.”
“A small group of countries manufactures most of the active primary ingredients for generic contraceptives, and since the pandemic hit, they’ve been stockpiling those ingredients, even though there’s no evidence they are running short on them. It’s a heartless trade policy—and a senseless one.”
70 percent of health workers worldwide are female, and their jobs are almost twice as likely to be cut during this time than men. Gates said policymakers must target female owned businesses and provide mobile phones for those without access to them.
“A mobile phone is increasingly where goods are bought and sold,” she explained. “Information is supplied and demanded, vital issues are debated, and money is moved between mobile bank accounts. Yet across low- and middle-income countries, women are ten percent less likely to own a mobile phone than men, and 313 million fewer women than men use mobile Internet.”
“The result is a vicious cycle: gender inequality leads to digital inequality, which further entrenches gender inequality. To break the cycle, governments should look to Kenya and Bangladesh, which have offered special phone and data packages priced and marketed with women’s needs in mind.”
Finally, Gates encouraged governments and policymakers to look to women as architects to designing a better outcome as the pandemic continues around the world.
“Governments should reach beyond the typical halls of power to partner with grassroots women’s organisations, whose deep understanding of marginalised populations can help ensure the official response leaves no woman behind.”
Gates is half of the $46bn Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation she runs with her husband, Bill Gates, and recently came out criticising Trump’s anti-science stance while dealing with the COVID-spread in the United States.
“We know right now, our only tools are testing, contact tracing, quarantine and masks. Any leader that is not using the tools and the data available, the populace needs to speak out against,” she told the Financial Times.
“Why don’t we have a good national testing and quarantine and response plan? It’s because of what’s happened at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”