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How we act now is going to define the century to come


Dr. Joannie Bewa is a public health researcher and women and girls activist. We interviewed her as part of our #PassTheMic series. Here’s some of what she had to say.

When it comes to women and girls during COVID-19 there are a lot of challenges, related to both health and non-health issues.

I’m seeing many things through a gender perspective, which is lacking on several levels. The first thing lacking is the acknowledgement that women are a large part of the workforce in health and social work. However, they are not necessarily the ones whose voices are addressing the pandemic or making the policy decisions.

The other level where the gender lens is lacking is protecting girls’ and women’s rights. We’ve seen so many stories from around the world of their’ rights being violated, from gender-based violence to carrying the burden of the housework.

Another problem is the other health issues that are being left behind because all resources are being used to address the current pandemic.

We also interviewed Dr. Bewa as part of our Yours in Power Series. Here’s her story.

The need for a diverse response

In tackling this pandemic, I think a coordinated global response needs to be diverse in terms of background, identity, and expertise.

As a medical doctor and as a public health professional, I will be out on the frontline both clinically and research policy wise. However, as we are seeing with this pandemic, it’s not just affecting healthcare. It’s also affecting the economy, people’s mental health, and the workforce.

So something that is really coordinated should bring together experts not just in health and policy, but also those other sections. So we can say: If we are social distancing and want to return back to normal, what does it take for the education sector? What does it take for the economy? What does it take socially?

Our first priority right now is healthcare delivery, and doctors are begging the international community to use evidence-based practices to provide care for people who have been affected or need emergency care.

My priorities outside of this is the gender lens, which is lacking in this response. We need to be responsible and make sure it doesn’t continue that way.

Prioritise the vulnerable

One thing I can say for sure, is that if we don’t have a coordinated global effort we will lose more lives than we should and it will require many, many, years for the world to get back on its feet.

Another risk is that we lose all of the gains that we have made. Things like securing rights and access to services for the most vulnerable, strong health systems, investments in the workforce to drive the economy, and social changes. All of that will be lost and we will not sustain the goals that we have achieved so far.

I think one of the biggest losses could be that we will not hit our Sustainable Development Goals by 2030 if we don’t have a coordinated mechanism that considers all stakeholders.

We need to prioritise the most vulnerable, by making sure that universal healthcare is not just a song that gets sung, but something that everyone, wherever they are, can have access to.

This pandemic is showing us that health and social development is still not the number one priority, in either developed or developing countries. Now more than ever this is really showing us the inequalities everywhere.

A report that the United Nations Population Fund recently released said by the end of the year, there will be millions of unintended pregnancies, many adolescent ones. We can also expect an increase in HIV infections in the most vulnerable, including youth and women who will be disproportionately affected.

So, looking at the progress we’ve made so far, specifically in women’s reproductive health and rights, I want to keep my motivation and my head high.

If we make smart decisions now, it’s going to be beneficial, not just for the health sector but for the world for the coming century.

If we can, in this very specific time, remain optimistic, use our innovation, research, technology, advocacy, and partnerships to bring all of us together, wherever we are in the world, I think this is going to define us. Not just now, not just in a decade’s time, but this is going to define this century to come.

These excerpts from the interview were edited for length and clarity.

Hear more from experts in our #PassTheMic campaign, where global health experts take over celebrities’ social media channels to share the data, facts, and science we need to know to end COVID-19. Follow us on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter for more.

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