Women doctors and scientists on the frontlines of the global battle against COVID-19 have revealed how the pandemic has exposed gender gaps in both access to healthcare and professional development in their fields.
The women doctors and scientists spoke at World Health Organisation (WHO) bi-weekly media briefing in Geneva to commemorate the International Women’s Day (IWD).
IWD is globally celebrated on March 8 to recognise the achievements of women and to take stock of progress toward gender equality.
Dr Roopa Dhatt, the Executive Director of Women in Global Health, and two scientists who have developed COVID-19 vaccines – Prof. Sarah Gilbert of Oxford University and Dr Özlem Türeci of German company BioNTech, one of the vaccine pioneers – were guest speakers at the briefing.
Dhatt, a physician in the United States, spoke of her “rollercoaster” year treating COVID-19 patients while also working to expand her organisation and manage duties at home.
The physician warned that the fundamental flaws and inequalities which the pandemic had exposed must be resolved urgently before the next global crisis.
“The extraordinary work done by women in the health and care workforce in this pandemic has not earned them an equal seat at the decision-making table, and as a result, we have all lost out on their talent and expertise,” she said.
Although proud of her contributions, Dhatt said like many health professionals, she felt furious that richer nations were not prepared for the pandemic “even though it was not unexpected”.
She was also angry that her sickest patients tend to be black or Latina “and this is not new”, she said, adding “COVID-19 does not discriminate, but societies do”.
Similarly, Gilbert from Oxford University in the United Kingdom previously worked on vaccines for influenza, Ebola and MERS, which was also caused by a coronavirus.
She acknowledged women’s “enormous contribution” during COVID-19, including in comprising two-thirds of the team that developed the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine.
“However, of the senior positions in the team, only one-third are women,” she said, emphasising that more needs to be done so that women can progress in the field and other disciplines.
“There are concerns that the pandemic has had more of an effect on the careers and livelihood of women than men, and as we begin to make our plans for recovery, we must not neglect this,” she said.
Gilbert reported on the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine’s effectiveness in protecting older populations, but pointed to the work ahead in assessing its ability against COVID-19 variants, saying “preparations are being made to update the vaccine, if necessary.
“As vaccinations are rolled out around the world, with the most vulnerable being protected first, we need to continue to monitor virus transmission.
“We need to continue to monitor virus transmission and apply all available measures to reduce it to protect those not yet vaccinated and reduce the chances of new variants arising.
“And to increase the amount of vaccine doses that can be delivered across the world, I encourage vaccine manufacturers to form new partnerships in diverse geographical locations to manufacture, fill and distribute vaccines that are already approved.”
Also speaking, Türeci said she had witnessed lack of gender equality but that the situation was not the same with her company.
But things are different at BioNTech, the company she co-founded with her husband, Prof. Uğur Şahin, as women make up 54 per cent of employees and nearly half of the top management.
“We like to think that being a gender-balanced team has been critical for making the seemingly impossible possible: to develop the COVID-19 vaccine within 11 months without shortcuts,” she said.
The BioNTech vaccine, developed with pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, was the first-ever authorised for use.
Together with the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, it is part of the UN-backed COVAX initiative that is working to make inoculation accessible to all people everywhere.
As more vaccines come on stream, Türeci underscored the goal of achieving herd immunity, or widescale population protection, through equitable rollout worldwide.
Meanwhile, the WHO Director General, Dr Tedros Ghebreyesus said the pandemic had disproportionately affected women, who have faced challenges ranging from rising violence, to higher levels of unemployment.
According to him, although women make up the majority of health workers globally, or 70 per cent, they only account for a quarter of those in leadership roles