Beyond making up 70% of the world's health workers, women researchers have been at the cutting edge of coronavirus research.
- The gender gap persists, as only 33% of the world's researchers are women.
- Here are just some of the women making lasting contributions in the fight against COVID-19.
- They include Dr Özlem Türeci, co-founder of BioNTech, which helped produce the first vaccine.
Women across the world have made an enormous contribution to the global efforts to tackle COVID-19. Not only do women make up 70% of the world's health workers and first responders, women in STEM fields have been leading research into the virus, creating trackers and developing vaccines.
But the pandemic has had a disproportionate social and economic impact on women, as many have borne the brunt of childcare duties or lost jobs in sectors most affected – and this includes women scientists.
February 11th is UN International Day of Women and Girls in Science – and the theme this year is celebrating the women scientists at the forefront of the fight against COVID-19, including Dr Özlem Türeci, co-founder of BioNTech, which helped produce the first vaccine.
Women represent almost half the students at Bachelor's (45%), Master's (55%) and PhD (44%) levels of study, according to UNESCO's forthcoming Science Report – but only 33% of the world's researchers are women.
To encourage more girls and women to take up careers in the STEM fields, UNESCO is gathering some of the world's leading COVID-19 experts for a virtual event.
"We need science, and science needs women. This is not only about making a commitment to equal rights; it is also about making science more open, diverse and efficient," said Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Executive Director of UN Women, and Audrey Azoulay, Director-General of UNESCO.
Here are just some of the women in STEM around the globe who have been making a difference during the pandemic.
Dr Özlem Türeci
Dr Türeci and her husband Dr Ugur Sahin co-founded biotechnology company BioNTech in Germany in 2008. In 2020, BioNTech and pharmaceutical firm Pfizer developed the first approved RNA-based vaccine against COVID-19. They celebrated the news that it had 90% efficacy with a cup of Turkish tea, the pair told The New York Times. Recently featured on the cover of Time magazine, the scientists plan to produce two billion doses of the vaccine this year to help bring the pandemic to an end.
Dr Soumya Swaminathan
A paediatrician and one of India's leading public health experts, known for her groundbreaking research on tuberculosis, Dr Swaminathan was appointed the World Health Organization's (WHO) Chief Scientist in 2019 and has been coordinating international work on vaccine development. She spoke about challenges women researchers face at the Women Leaders in Global Health Conference 2020: "It is more difficult for women researchers to get their grants approved … and women also have difficulties in getting their results published, if you are from developing countries, in journals, because of perceived biases. I have faced those kinds of challenges and biases."
Within a night in March 2020, Ramida Juengpaisal and her colleagues at web design firm 5LAB in Bangkok, Thailand, built a tracker of COVID-19 cases, giving the city's eight million residents up-to-date news and information about the pandemic and helping to stop the spread of misinformation. She told Reuters the perception that girls are less suited to technology-based roles is gradually shifting: "We need more women in tech. One good thing about this crisis is that we have seen people – including women – come forward to create things that are useful to others, and be recognized."Ramida Juengpaisal built a COVID-19 tracker for Bangkok – overnight. Image: UN Women/Stefan Abrecht/BioNTech
Professor Sarah Gilbert
Prof Gilbert is the Oxford Project Lead for the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, now recommended for use by all adults worldwide by the WHO. When the genetic sequence for the new coronavirus was published in January last year, she swiftly built on her work developing a vaccine for MERS, which used chimp adenovirus to deliver the spike protein into humans. Prof Gilbert is currently working on a new version of the vaccine to tackle the South African variant.
Faruqi and her all-female robotics team began developing a low-cost, lightweight ventilator using locally available, second-hand car parts, after the first COVID-19 case was reported in her home province of Herat in Afghanistan. She told UN Women: "Sometimes, families think science and tech are male fields and prefer that their girls don't enter them. We have less role models for young women in these fields, and that makes it more challenging for young women to enter this industry."
Kaseje is the Founder of Surgical Systems Research Group in Kenya, which seeks to rapidly expand access to health services by leveraging youth, technology and community health workers. Since May 2020, the group has helped to flatten the curve of COVID-19 cases in Siaya County, by combining digital tools and data science with the work of young people and community health workers to raise awareness about preventative measures.
Professor Devi Sridhar
American public health researcher Prof Sridhar is a leading authority on COVID-19 in the UK and Professor and Chair of Global Public Health at Edinburgh University. She is known for her work on assessing the international response to the Ebola virus epidemic in West Africa. Among her frequent media appearances, she spoke to the World Economic Forum's World Vs Virus podcast about why ethnic minorities in Europe and North America were at greater risk from COVID-19.
Dr Anggia Prasetyoputri
Dr Prasetyoputri was awarded the 2020 L'Oréal-UNESCO National Fellowship For Women in Science (FWIS) by L'Oréal Indonesia for her research on bacterial coinfections in COVID-19 patients using swab sample sequencing. COVID-19 patients whose immune systems are already weakened by the virus, are more susceptible to other viruses and bacteria. So Dr Prasetyoputri worked out a quick and simple way to identify these coinfections – and help doctors prescribe the right treatment.
From making their own swabs to staying in constant communication across the board, Northwell Health dove headfirst into uncharted waters to take on the virus and save lives.
- Preparing for a pandemic like COVID-19 was virtually impossible. Northwell Health president and CEO Michael Dowling explains how, as the largest healthcare provider in New York, his team had to continuously organize, innovate, and readjust to dangerous and unpredictable conditions in a way that guaranteed safety for the staff and the best treatment for over 128,000 coronavirus patients.
- From making their own supplies when they ran out, to coordinating with government at every level and making sense of new statistics and protocols, Northwell focused on strengthening internal and external communication to keep the ship from sinking.
- "There was no such thing as putting up the white flag," Dowling says of meeting the pandemic head on and reassuring his front line staff that they would be safe and have all the resources they needed to beat the virus. "It's amazing how innovative you can be in a crisis."
Lovers are parted from lovers, (grand)parents from children, families from their dead.
Lovers are parted from lovers, (grand)parents from children, families from their dead. And we are exiled from many things we enjoy: freedom of movement, the ability to eat out or swim at public pools …
In such times, older wisdom traditions can be helpful. The ancient Stoics wrote extensively about facing death, grief, illness, exile and other adversities.
The Roman Stoic Seneca (4-65 CE), philosopher-counsellor to the emperor Nero, is the author of many letters and dialogues on subjects as diverse as the natural world and virtues like constancy and clemency.
When he was exiled by the Emperor Claudius in 41 CE, a fate he would share with several Stoics in this period, Seneca wrote a consolation to his mother to help her deal with his absence.
A basic idea Seneca shares with other Stoics like Musonius Rufus and Epictetus, is that it is not events in the world by themselves that make people suffer. The ideas we form about these events also matter. Our ideas filter what we experience. So, if through reflection, meditation, and reasoning we can change these filters, our experience of the world will alter.
Even the most fortunate people need to learn how to respond when things don't go as they wish. Here are six counsels a Stoic like Seneca might offer those in lockdown or isolation today.
Work with what we can change
Lamenting what we can't change is understandable, but not effective. We can't change that COVID-19 exists. We can change how we respond to it. We can stay home, wear masks when we go out, practise social distancing and remind ourselves that these personal inconveniences are there to protect others as well as ourselves — using this as an opportunity to grow our sense of service and community.
One way to minimise anger, Seneca argues, is to limit your concerns to what you know for sure. If someone tells you something nasty about a third party, you should check whether it is true before leaping to an emotional judgement. In the same way, if you read something on the internet alleging a conspiracy, before accepting it as true, ask yourself whether you know it for sure. If the answer is "no", then don't jump to conclusions.
Take an expanded view
The Stoics noticed that we make our hardships worse when we imagine that they are exceptional. So, it puts things in perspective to remember other generations have suffered wars spanning decades, and worse plagues than we are experiencing. This is not, as Seneca writes:
to teach you that this often befalls people […] but to let you know that there have been many who have lightened their misfortunes by patient endurance of them.
Things could be worse. Other individuals, every day, face far greater hardships than we are facing.
A plaster sculpture of Seneca, on right, and the emperor Nero by Eduardo Barrón. (Wikimedia Commons)
Choose a model
Remember that the people we most admire didn't always have it their own way. It is their proven willingness to do the hard things for causes greater than themselves that makes them inspiring.
"For we are naturally disposed to admire more than anything else the man who shows fortitude in adversity," Seneca observes.
Think of people you look up to, whether athletes, philosophers, scientists, philanthropists, and ask: how would they have responded in our situation?
Premeditate the worst, hope and work for the best
Stoics like Seneca knew that our fear and negative emotions strike us hardest when something happens for which we aren't prepared.
For this reason, they advise us to imaginatively rehearse how we will respond to the worst possible outcomes in advance (like, say, Melbourne's hard lockdown lasting until December or January).
Forewarned is forearmed. The flipside is that when the worst (hopefully) doesn't transpire, you can savour the fact that things are comparatively good.
Enjoy what is (still) in our power
Remember that if we can't do many things right now, we can still do others. "I am as joyous and cheerful as in my best days," Seneca reassures his mum from exile in Corsica:
indeed these days are my best, because my mind is relieved from all pressure of business and is at leisure to attend to its own affairs, and at one time amuses itself with lighter studies, at another eagerly presses its inquiries into its own nature and that of the universe […]
We can't all be Senecas. But being stuck at home doesn't stop us from loving, reading, studying, laughing (including at ourselves), listening to music, watching good TV, having great conversations, trying to be patient with our kids […]
"The good things which belong to prosperity are to be wished," said Seneca, "but the good things that belong to adversity are to be admired," because they depend on us.
No one wishes for adversity, but Stoic philosophy can help us overcome it.
Northwell Health has built an elaborate data system to track and fight COVID-19. If this system goes global, it could prevent a future pandemic.
- This coronavirus pandemic is very much still ongoing, but now is the time to discern its lessons so that we are more prepared for the next one. Michael Dowling, president and CEO of Northwell Health, shares how their health system is collecting and utilizing vast amounts of health data to best care for patients and to quickly identify and manage COVID-19 surges.
- "I would say that we probably had the most elaborate dashboard of any health system dealing with this crisis," says Dowling. Northwell Health has also developed a "local surveillance tracking system" which has allowed them to react to COVID spikes early. Dowling hopes that these systems will be adopted by and improved upon by other networks.
- In addition to improvements to New York State's illness surveillance system, Dowling hopes to see a more global approach to fighting the pandemic where infection data is tracked shared between nations and warning signs can be acted on early enough to avoid another crisis.
I spoke to 99 big thinkers about what our ‘world after coronavirus’ might look like – this is what I learned
There is no going "back to normal."
Back in March, my colleagues at the Frederick S. Pardee Center for the Study of the Longer-Range Future at Boston University thought that it might be useful to begin thinking about “the day after coronavirus."
For a research center dedicated to longer-term thinking, it made sense to ask what our post-COVID-19 world might look like.
In the months that followed, I learned many things. Most importantly, I learned there is no “going back to normal."
My season of learning
The project took on a life of its own. Over 190 days, we released 103 videos. Each was around five minutes long, with one simple question: How might COVID-19 impact our future? Watch the full video series here.
I interviewed leading thinkers on 101 distinct topics – from money to debt, supply chains to trade, work to robots, journalism to politics, water to food, climate change to human rights, e-commerce to cybersecurity, despair to mental health, gender to racism, fine arts to literature, and even hope and happiness.
My interviewees included the president of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, a former CIA director, a former NATO supreme allied commander, a former prime minister of Italy and Britain's astronomer royal.
I "Zoomed" – the word had become a verb almost overnight – with Kishore Mahbubani in Singapore, Yolanda Kakabadse in Quito, Judith Butler in Berkeley, California, Alice Ruhweza in Nairobi and Jeremy Corbyn in London. For our very last episode, former U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon joined from Seoul.
For me, it was truly a season of learning. Among other things, it helped me understand why COVID-19 is not a storm that we can just wait out. Our pre-pandemic world was anything but normal, and our post-pandemic world will not be like going back to normal at all. Here are four reasons why.
Disruption will accelerate
Just as people with preexisting medical conditions are most susceptible to the virus, the global impact of the crisis will accelerate preexisting transitions. As Eurasia Group President Ian Bremmer highlights, a year of a global pandemic can pack in a decade or more of disruption as usual.
For example, Phil Baty from "Times Higher Education" warns that universities will change "profoundly [and] forever," but mostly because the higher education sector was already screaming for change.
At Harvard, trade policy expert Dani Rodrik thinks the pandemic is hastening the "retreat from hyperglobalization" that was already in train before COVID-19. And Pardee School economist Perry Mehrling is convinced that "society will be transformed permanently … and returning to status quo ante is, I think, not possible."
Politics will become more turbulent
While the clouds over the global economy are ominous – with even the usually optimistic Nobel Prize-winning economist Sir Angus Deaton worrying we might be entering a dark phase that takes "20 to 30 years before we see progress" – it is political commentators who seem most perplexed.
Stanford University's political theorist Francis Fukuyama confesses he has "never seen a period in which the degree of uncertainty as to what the world will look like politically is greater than it is today."
COVID-19 has underscored fundamental questions about government competence, the rise of populist nationalism, sidelining of expertise, decline of multilateralism and even the idea of liberal democracy itself. None of our experts – not one – expects politics anywhere to become less turbulent than it was pre-pandemic.
Geopolitically, this manifests itself in what the founding dean of Harvard's Kennedy School, Graham Allison, calls an "underlying, fundamental, structural, Thucydidean rivalry" in which a rapidly rising new power, China, threatens to displace the established power, the United States. COVID-19 accelerated and intensified this great power rivalry with ramifications across Asia, Europe, Africa, Latin America and the Middle East.
Pandemic habits will persist
Not all turbulence, however, is unwelcome.
Robin Murphy, engineering professor at Texas A&M University, is convinced that "we are going to have robots everywhere" as a result of COVID-19. That's because they became so pervasive during the pandemic for deliveries, COVID-19 tests, automated services and even home use.
Vala Afshar, chief digital evangelist at Salesforce software company, goes even further. He argues that in the post-COVID-19 world "every business will be[come] a digital business" and will have to take a great deal of its commerce, interactions and workforce online.
Crisis will create opportunities
Science journalist Laurie Garrett, who has warned about global epidemics for decades, imagines an opportunity to address the injustices of our economic and societal systems. Because "there will not be a single activity that goes on as it once did," she says, there is also the possibility of fundamental restructuring in the upheaval.
Environmentalist Bill McKibben says the pandemic could become a wake-up call that makes people realize that "crisis and disaster are real possibilities" but can be averted.
They are not alone in this thinking. Economist Thomas Piketty recognizes the dangers of rising nationalism and inequality, but hopes we learn "to invest more in the welfare state." He says "COVID will reinforce the legitimacy for public investments in [health systems] and infrastructure."
Former Environmental Minister of Ecuador Yolanda Kakabadse similarly believes that the world will recognize that "ecosystem health equals human health," and focus new attention on the environment. And military historian Andrew Bacevich would like to see a conversation about "the definition of national security in the 21st century."
Achim Steiner, administrator of the United Nations Development Programme, is awestruck at the extraordinary amount of money that was mobilized to respond to this global crisis. He wonders if the world might become less stingy about the much smaller amounts needed to combat climate change before it is irreversible and catastrophic.
Ultimately, I think Noam Chomsky, one of the most important public intellectuals of our times, summed it up best. "We need to ask ourselves what world will come out of this," he said. "What is the world we want to live in?"
John Prandato, communications specialist at the Frederick S. Pardee Center for the Study of the Longer-Range Future, was series editor for the video project and contributed to this essay.