Melinda Gates has launched a paper exploring how the COVID-19 pandemic has exploited pre-existing inequalities and drastically impacted women’s lives and livelihoods. In the paper, titled “The Pandemic’s Toll on Women and Girls,” Melinda makes the case that to recover fully from this pandemic, leaders must respond to the ways that it is affecting men and women differently. She puts forward a set of specific, practical policy recommendations that governments should consider in their pandemic response-to improve health systems for women and girls, design more inclusive economic policies, gather better data, and prioritize women’s leadership.
Writing in the paper, Melinda describes how previous disease outbreaks, including AIDS and Ebola, tend to exploit existing forces of inequality, particularly around gender, systemic racism, and poverty. The broader impacts of this crisis are having a disproportionate impact on women and girls.
In Africa, for example, women account for around 40% of COVID-19 cases. However, African women and girls are disproportionately affected by reduced access to health care services and are at greater risk of gender-based violence. Women make up the majority of workers in the informal sector, which leaves them at greater risk of losing their income.
Describing the impact of stretched health systems on maternal care, the paper notes that in low- and middle-income countries, cutbacks could claim the lives of up to 113,000 women. We know from the past that this threat is real. During the 2014 Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, the number of mothers and babies who died during or after childbirth was higher than the number of deaths from the Ebola virus.
“That is what epidemics do: they not only overwhelm immune systems; they also overwhelm health systems,” Melinda writes in the paper. “And because the parts of those systems devoted to caring for women are often the most fragile and underfunded, they collapse first and fastest.”
The paper calls for leaders to ensure that women and girls are not left behind in the world’s response to COVID-19. It urges policymakers to recognize the opportunity to replace old systems with new and better ones, outlining practical recommendations around health, economics, and decision-making that could help build a more equal and prosperous future.
Recommendations include making maternal and reproductive healthcare an essential service, protecting the contraceptive supply chain, and using the pandemic as an opportunity to integrate women’s healthcare. The paper also highlights the importance of designing emergency economic relief programs that reach women who need them the most and ensuring women’s voices are included at all levels of decision-making in the response to this crisis.
Melinda concludes, “This is how we can emerge from the pandemic in all of its dimensions: by recognizing that women are not just victims of a broken world; they can be architects of a better one.”