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COVID-19: Magnifying the World’s Inequities

The Wilson Center and EMD Serono, a business of Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany hosted an event focused on the gender and racial implications of COVID-19 with experts on topics around women and work, caregiving, gender-based violence, racism and sexism in healthcare, access to sexual and reproductive health services, pregnancy, the context of humanitarian settings, the female-led workforce of nurses and midwives, and the role and experience of men and boys during the current pandemic.

Date & Time

Apr. 30, 2020
9:00am – 10:30am ET


“While COVID-19 has wreaked havoc the world over, history has proven, and recent data agrees that the hardest hit will be the world’s women and girls and populations already impacted by racism and discrimination,” said Sarah Barnes, Project Director of the Maternal Health Initiative and Women and Gender Advisor at the Wilson Center, at a recent event on the impact of COVID-19 on race and gender inequities. Coronavirus has hurt women and girls in many ways. Among them, women have been pushed back into the home.  And healthcare workers and caregivers who are mostly women are jeopardizing their own health, caring for others.

While much of the attention around COVID-19 revolves around men due to their higher mortality rates, women play an outsized role in responding not only to COVID-19, but also to many pandemics, said Katja Iversen, President and CEO of Women Deliver. Women are 70 percent of the global health workforce and the majority of social workers and caregivers, said Dr. Maria Rivas, Chief Medical Officer at Merck KGaA, Darmstadt Germany and Senior Vice President of EMD Serono. And women deliver 70 percent of global caregiving hours. Women subsidize health globally: 50 percent of the care they provide, which includes work as vaccinators and community health workers, is unpaid, said Dr. Roopa Dhatt, Founder and Executive Director of Women in Global Health.  

A common thread in the disaggregated data on the virus shows that some groups are disproportionately affected by the pandemic across the United States and worldwide. Statistics released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that 30 percent of COVID-19 cases are among African Americans, who make up only 13 percent of the American population. In New York City, black and Latino residents are getting infected and dying at twice the rate of their white counterparts. “Viruses don’t discriminate, but societies do,” said Dr. Dhatt.

Racism and Other Inequities

“The divide between those that are aiming to provide care and those that are in need of care has never felt wider,” said Dr. Neel Shah, Assistant Professor of Obstetrics, Gynecology, and Reproductive Biology at Harvard Medical School and a practicing OB-GYN in Boston. COVID-19 has exploited the way that racism in the United States has determined who receives health insurance and healthcare, said Dr. Joia Crear-Perry, Founder and President of the National Birth Equity Collaborative. In Louisiana, generations of low-income black men had no access to any kind of health coverage up until four years ago. “So, when a virus comes,” she said, “it also exploits the way that racism has racialized who would receive health insurance. Other countries can’t even imagine that the United States would racialize benefits like insurance, leaving out large parts of the population who look like me,” said Dr. Crear-Perry, who is black, because we believed that they were broken and not valuable. “So, we have an opportunity to stop doing that and to invest in healthcare for all that believe health is a right,” she said, “to be a country that really values all ethnicities, all languages, all genders.”

Often public health “best practices” shared on mainstream media are not truly “best practices” for groups who are already marginalized, said Dr. Dhatt. People in these groups see these recommendations as restrictions to further disenfranchise them and keep them in a lower socioeconomic status. When told to stay home, even if they show no symptoms, such people feel dismissed or ignored, said Dr. Shah.

We are seeing a “multiplier effect of burdens,” said Dr. Dhatt. The people who are most impacted by COVID-19 are also the people health systems have historically failed to adequately care for. These groups are more likely to have higher rates of noncommunicable diseases, which leaves them more vulnerable to COVID-19. And they are less likely to have health insurance or access to health services. Immigrant women are another group that tend not to have access to healthcare, said Zara Ahmed, Associate Director for Federal Issues at Guttmacher Institute. Non-citizens of reproductive age are three times more likely to be uninsured.

COVID-19 also increases risks for groups who are further marginalized by other factors. Reports of gender-based violence have risen due to the isolation from lockdowns and tensions in households due to financial and economic stressors, said Leyla Sharafi, Senior Gender Advisor of UNFPA. UNFPA’s data projects that for every three months of lockdown, we can expect 15 million more cases of gender-based violence. For women and girls who are further marginalized, like women with disabilities, refugees, and indigenous groups, the risks of experiencing gender-based violence is even greater. In order to protect these populations, services need to be flexible and adaptive to offer pathways for survivors to seek care, and safe shelters for women and girls must be deemed essential, said Sharafi. 

SRHR Services Under Assault

The COVID-19 crisis is also threatening sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR), said Ahmed. Guttmacher Institute recently released estimates on how sexual and reproductive health (SRH) outcomes could change after a “modest” 10 percent decline in use of contraceptives in 132 low- and middle-income countries. In just one year, we could see 49 million more women with an unmet need for contraception, 15 million more unintended pregnancies, 168,000 more newborn deaths, and 28,000 more maternal deaths. “In the midst of this pandemic, bad policies and structural barriers may contribute to millions of people losing access to essential sexual and reproductive health services,” said Ahmed. As the largest donor for SRH programs globally, said Ahmed, the United States has a responsibility to pass legislation and fund global programs that ensure access to SRHR worldwide.

Maternal, sexual, and reproductive health and rights are essential, said Iversen. Yet in previous disease outbreaks, such as Ebola, global health programs saw money and healthcare workers diverted from maternity wards and reproductive health clinics. However, there is still a dire need for these services globally as women still need contraception, are still getting pregnant, and are still giving birth, said Iversen. “We know that dark forces are trying to use this situation to take our rights, our reproductive rights, away,” she said. “If we’re not careful, we’re going to lose a lot of ground.” 

Women Leaders Excel

In order to address the inequities that COVID-19 has highlighted, leadership in governments and decision-making institutions need to be more representative, said Iversen. While women are 70 percent of the health workforce, they make up only 25 percent of senior leaders in global health, said Dr. Dhatt. Advocates are often told that “now is not the time” to address gender inequities, but the reality is that representative leadership has led to stronger COVID-19 responses worldwide, she said. Countries with the most efficient and effective responses like Denmark, Taiwan, New Zealand, and Germany are all led by women, said Iversen.  

“Currently, we have to isolate people who are both symptomatic and asymptomatic which is effectively everyone. And isolating everyone takes all of the existing inequities in our society and it throws them into a pressure cooker,” said Dr. Shah.

Written by Deekshita Ramanarayanan

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Hosted By

Maternal Health Initiative

Life and health are the most basic human rights, yet disparities between and within countries continue to grow. No single solution or institution can address the variety of health concerns the world faces. By leveraging, building on, and coordinating the Wilson Center’s strong regional and cross-cutting programming, the Maternal Health Initiative (MHI) promotes dialogue and understanding among practitioners, scholars, community leaders, and policymakers.  Read more

Africa Program

The Africa Program works to address the most critical issues facing Africa and US-Africa relations, build mutually beneficial US-Africa relations, and enhance knowledge and understanding about Africa in the United States. The Program achieves its mission through in-depth research and analyses, public discussion, working groups, and briefings that bring together policymakers, practitioners, and subject matter experts to analyze and offer practical options for tackling key challenges in Africa and in US-Africa relations.    Read more

Indo-Pacific Program

The Indo-Pacific Program promotes policy debate and intellectual discussions on US interests in the Asia-Pacific as well as political, economic, security, and social issues relating to the world’s most populous and economically dynamic region.   Read more

Brazil Institute

The Brazil Institute—the only country-specific policy institution focused on Brazil in Washington—works to foster understanding of Brazil’s complex reality and to support more consequential relations between Brazilian and US institutions in all sectors. The Brazil Institute plays this role by producing independent research and programs that bridge the gap between scholarship and policy, and by serving as a crossroads for leading policymakers, scholars and private sector representatives who are committed to addressing Brazil’s challenges and opportunities.  Read more

Canada Institute

The mission of the Wilson Center's Canada Institute is to raise the level of knowledge of Canada in the United States, particularly within the Washington, DC policy community.  Research projects, initiatives, podcasts, and publications cover contemporary Canada, US-Canadian relations, North American political economy, and Canada's global role as it intersects with US national interests.  Read more

Environmental Change and Security Program

The Environmental Change and Security Program (ECSP) explores the connections between environmental change, health, and population dynamics and their links to conflict, human insecurity, and foreign policy.  Read more

Global Risk and Resilience Program

The Global Risk and Resilience Program (GRRP) seeks to support the development of inclusive, resilient networks in local communities facing global change. By providing a platform for sharing lessons, mapping knowledge, and linking people and ideas, GRRP and its affiliated programs empower policymakers, practitioners, and community members to participate in the global dialogue on sustainability and resilience. Empowered communities are better able to develop flexible, diverse, and equitable networks of resilience that can improve their health, preserve their natural resources, and build peace between people in a changing world.  Read more

Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier US center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more

Kissinger Institute on China and the United States

The Kissinger Institute works to ensure that China policy serves American long-term interests and is founded in understanding of historical and cultural factors in bilateral relations and in accurate assessment of the aspirations of China’s government and people.  Read more

Latin America Program

The Wilson Center’s prestigious Latin America Program provides non-partisan expertise to a broad community of decision makers in the United States and Latin America on critical policy issues facing the Hemisphere. The Program provides insightful and actionable research for policymakers, private sector leaders, journalists, and public intellectuals in the United States and Latin America. To bridge the gap between scholarship and policy action, it fosters new inquiry, sponsors high-level public and private meetings among multiple stakeholders, and explores policy options to improve outcomes for citizens throughout the Americas. Drawing on the Wilson Center’s strength as the nation’s key non-partisan policy forum, the Program serves as a trusted source of analysis and a vital point of contact between the worlds of scholarship and action.  Read more

Mexico Institute

The Mexico Institute seeks to improve understanding, communication, and cooperation between Mexico and the United States by promoting original research, encouraging public discussion, and proposing policy options for enhancing the bilateral relationship. A binational Advisory Board, chaired by Luis Téllez and Earl Anthony Wayne, oversees the work of the Mexico Institute.   Read more

Middle East Program

The Wilson Center’s Middle East Program serves as a crucial resource for the policymaking community and beyond, providing analyses and research that helps inform US foreign policymaking, stimulates public debate, and expands knowledge about issues in the wider Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.  Read more

Polar Institute

Since its inception in 2017, the Polar Institute has become a premier forum for discussion and policy analysis of Arctic and Antarctic issues, and is known in Washington, DC and elsewhere as the Arctic Public Square. The Institute holistically studies the central policy issues facing these regions—with an emphasis on Arctic governance, climate change, economic development, scientific research, security, and Indigenous communities—and communicates trusted analysis to policymakers and other stakeholders.  Read more

Science and Technology Innovation Program

The Science and Technology Innovation Program (STIP) serves as the bridge between technologists, policymakers, industry, and global stakeholders.  Read more

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