Women-led Countries Performed Better in Pandemic Response  

Women-led sectors and nations have been at the forefront of the COVID-19 response – despite only a quarter of global leaders being women, speakers at a World Health Assembly side-event noted on Friday. 

“Women have been delivering good health pre-pandemic – and during the pandemic,” said Dr Farah Shroff, head of the Maternal and Infant Health (MIH) Canada, which co-sponsored the event with the Geneva Graduate Institute’s Global Health Center.

Calling women’s leadership during the pandemic “a game-changing moment for women at the helm,” Shroff said a “big difference” in COVID-19 response effectiveness was found in two groups: countries with female leadership and countries that prioritize the well-being of society, as opposed to more individualistic or business-oriented leadership. 

“[They] have really been the unsung heroes and ‘she-roes’ of this pandemic; 2021 is the tipping point for female leaders.”

Female Leaders Acted Sooner 

Marcia Castro, chair of the Department of Global Health and Population at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health

Women-led countries have flattened curves, implemented efficient vaccine rollouts and taken effective economic measures, she said. Research shows that these leaders were quicker to respond to the crisis, increasing public health spending, closing borders and enforcing mandatory stay-at-home orders.  

“Countries that have had some of the best responses are led by women,” Harvard University Professor Marcia Castro agreed. “Although women are still the minority in leading countries, we need to take that as an example — and carefully look at the differences in leadership, particularly when we face a major public health emergency.”  

Rwanda is noted for leading the world in women’s leadership – 67% of parliamentarians are female –  but its public health progress is just as noteworthy. Despite low resources (per-capita GDP is US $820), Rwanda has a vaccination rate of 90%.

Ninety-three percent of girls ages 12 to 22 are vaccinated against the human papilloma virus (HPV) to prevent cervical cancer, said Agnes Binagwaho, Vice Chancellor of Rwanda’s University of Global Health Equity. 

“Even during the time of COVID today, where primary health care resources are pulled out of health care systems to respond and be prepared for COVID-19, [Rwanda] has kept that line of primary care and family planning,” she said. “Despite the huge gender discrimination women are facing, we are making the difference.” 

Agnes Binagwaho, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Global Health Equity, Rwanda

Satya Lakshmi, director of India’s National Institute of Naturopathy, spoke about the unsung heroes of the pandemic, from doctors to community health workers, including Accredited Social Health Activists (ASHAs), local women trained as health educators and promoters with health ministry funding. 

Lakshmi also said collective self-help groups helped Kerala’s women by spurring local production and exchange of goods during lockdowns. 

Leadership Lessons For Future Pandemics

Speakers emphasized that compassionate leaders governing on behalf of society as a whole made a difference in the current pandemic, and they asked that these qualities not be forgotten in future crises.

“We know there’s going to be other pandemics – not just viral pandemics, but a whole variety of other pandemics that have been brewing and stewing for a long time,” said Shroff. Giving racism, neo-colonialism, violence against women, and other issues as examples.

She said leaders must “not go back to business as usual. … This COVID moment can catalyse a kinder, gentler world where we prioritise science, we prioritise human health, and we can collaborate with each other across borders.”

Image Credits: Graduate Institute Geneva.

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