Melinda Gates Talks Investing in Women, Goalkeepers Report, Defeating COVID-19

September 21, 2020

Last week, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation launched its fourth annual Goalkeepers Report, featuring new data showing how the ripple effects of Covid-19 have stopped 20 years of progress toward the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

The annual report details the damage the pandemic is doing to health, global economies and life.

In the report, Bill and Melinda Gates call on the world to collaborate on the development of diagnostics, vaccines and treatment; manufacture tests and doses as quickly as possible; and deliver these tools equitably based on need, rather than the ability to pay.

Melinda Gates spoke to Standard Group’s Najma Ismael on the report and Covid-19.

This is going to be a different Goalkeepers Report, a not so good one, unlike the previous ones where there was a lot of progress made (in fighting poverty and disease). What is standing out in this year’s report?

Just like we have said before, every year progress is possible but it is not inevitable and in this year’s Goalkeepers report we decided to be realistic about where we are. None of us expected this pandemic but it really has set a lot of progress back.

We are facing an economic, education and nutrition catastrophes due to Covid-19, yet we were getting closer to creating a better, more equal world. What is the impact on the progress made so far?

We are seeing far more people drop into poverty. We are seeing 20 years of progress in helping people come out of poverty into a higher form of productivity and income being completely wiped out. Thirty-seven million more people have dropped below the extreme poverty lines of $1.90 a day. That’s tragic. Twenty-five years of vaccine work has also been set back because of this pandemic.

How do we get back on track?

We continue to invest in our primary healthcare systems and in universal healthcare because that is where mothers, fathers and their children go when they are ill or when they need vaccines. We should continue to make government cash transfer payments as much as we can during this time when people are losing their economic opportunity, we need to do that and do it with finesse.

Do we have any gains made in this year’s report? I would like to hope that it is not all doom and gloom.

What you are seeing is global co-operation. We are seeing progress in the sense that in the last four months, a global group called the ACT Accelerator is working on behalf of the world on a vaccine, therapeutics, diagnostics and on getting PPEs out there everywhere and that is a great thing.

You mentioned that for an effective Covid-19 response, the world needs more data on women. Explain this.

We know women have disproportionate shocks because of Covid-19. While more men are dying, at a higher rate, women are the ones losing their jobs at twice the rate. Women are 70 per cent of healthcare workers around the world and they are the ones taking care of the young and the elderly, so we have to have data about their lives to know how to invest and help them since they are lifting up everyone else in society and keeping us all together.

We still have gender gaps that are getting worse with Covid-19. What is the way forward?

We should invest in women. If you have a government cash transfer payment, make sure the cash gets in the hands of a woman because the women spend the money more prudently compared to our husbands. She spends it on her health, her children’s health and in the nutrition and food for the family. Make sure women still have economic opportunities wherever they are.

You champion data to solve these issues. What made you take the data path?

Because we do not have data about women’s lives, we do not know how to invest in them. Yes, we are seeing women come up with ingenious solutions; like pop up stands in their communities to offer food and essentials, they are figuring out how to social distance, girls in Niger are figuring out how to rotate their own community groups and school schedules so that they can go safely to outdoor schools. If we do not collect that data and give a voice to it, these innovative solutions that work for societies will not come forward.

As a foundation, what are your biggest setbacks even before Covid-19?

We have had our share of disappointments. We would had hoped that by this time we would have a vaccine for malaria, but we haven’t despite many investments. We were making progress on malaria but then when Covid-19 hit, now we have lost five years of gains in the malaria community. We have to look at all of these issues and keep working on them systematically.

Moving post-Covid-19, what is your priority as a foundation?

Our priority remains the same, which is to help people live healthy and productive lives. That is what Bill and I have always been about with our foundation and with many partners and governments across the world. We will keep making the investments in vaccines, more of them for Covid-19, in contraceptives so that women do not have unplanned pregnancies and can lift themselves out of poverty. Other investments are in digital bank accounts so people can have money to save and spend in those programmes.

For developing countries like Kenya, how do you cushion us from the catastrophic effects of Covid-19?

We know that rich countries can put more money into stimulus in their own countries, but we need to make sure they are also giving foreign aid for stimulus in middle and low income countries. The higher income governments have access to more wealth and so they can manage some of those economic shocks better, we need to help low income countries manage the economic shocks.

You say in the report that countries need to work together, that it is not a national but a global issue. How best will they do that?

You do that through global cooperation because this is a disease that crosses every boarder and so even if you bring it down in 90 per cent of the countries and you still have it in 10 per cent, and it will bounce back all over the world. It is going to take global cooperation to defeat this pandemic. So, when the first vaccine dosages are available, they should go to healthcare workers everywhere, not just in high income countries. We need an equitable response for the manufacturing and distribution of the vaccine and that is what is to come through this ACT-Accelerator.

How are you dealing with the pandemic? What keeps you going and what are your biggest lessons?

Just like other families, it has affected us. Bill and I are working from home, our children are home from school, but we are lucky we are not struggling to put a meal on the table. What keeps me hopeful is when I see these amazing acts of kindness from one family to another, taking care of an elderly person or reaching out to someone. We try at our dinner table to list one or two things we are grateful for that day and I think when you can have gratitude it keeps you filled up so that you can continue to do the hard work in the world.

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