Gender and vaccine equity must go hand in hand in Latin America


Junior Associate at Global Health Strategies

The virus that causes COVID-19 does not discriminate between gender, social status or location. However, this does not mean that the impact of the coronavirus is the same for all population groups. In Latin America, on average 73,2% of healthcare workers are women, and the figure is as high as 80,3% in the Dominican Republic. In part because of these roles, it should not come as a surprise that this pandemic has been taking a disproportionate toll on the region's women. Many parts of the world see the COVID-19 vaccine roll-out as a light at the end of a tunnel. Nonetheless, the vaccine unequal distribution can further exacerbate gender disparities in the region and beyond, stretching the impacts of the pandemic.  

Women have also been severely impacted by COVID-19 because they account for a majority of workers in the informal sector and because, compared to men, they lack access to social protection services and other safety nets. Additionally, as the majority in single-parent households, women have been overburdened due to the closing of schools due to the pandemic. Exposure to gender-based and domestic violence has increased as lockdowns are implemented, consumption of alcohol and drugs skyrocket and the provision of support to victims is interrupted. Women’s health has also been affected by the disruption of reproductive health services, such as maternal healthcare and assistance to gender-based violence victims. 

Aside from being the majority among health sector workers, women also represent 70,2% of those working with education in Latin America. The interruption of classes has severely affected employment and, as many countries reopen schools, those who kept their jobs become frontline workers at further risk of infection. While rich countries have been able to purchase doses to vaccinate a large portion of their population, some countries have not started vaccinating even the most exposed workers in essential services, which largely impacts women working in these sectors.

Throughout history, including the current context, women still lack adequate representation in governance and decision-making spaces for health, and this also applies to COVID-19 responses at domestic and international levels. For instance, globally, only 7,2% of women are heads of state, and only 24,7% of health ministers are women. As a consequence, gender-targeted efforts are not prioritized, as in the case of COVID-19 vaccination. 

Women in the frontline: also part of the solution

With often limited access to personal protection equipment, women working on the COVID frontlines not only face greater risks at their workplaces, but also end up exposing their households and family members to potential infection. Stigma and financial exclusion are some of the consequences in the process, as their social and professional circles are frightened to be infected. Ensuring equity in vaccine distribution offers an opportunity for the international community to break this cycle and alleviate women's burden by ensuring those in the frontlines are duly protected.

Described by United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Gutérres as "widely uneven and unfair", vaccination so far has been a privilege of countries that are able to produce or pay for it. Just 10 countries have purchased 75% of the doses available, while as of February 17  around 130 had not received any. 

While COVID-19 vaccine supplies are limited, governments, multilateral organizations, the private sector and civil society should make use of tools available to secure priority groups’ protection, including women in the frontlines. According to Adriana Erthal Abdenur, Co-Founder and Executive Director of Plataforma CIPÓ, a Brazilian research institute focusing on climate, peace and international cooperation, "It is important to map demands and experiences, including good practices, being implemented by municipal and state governments to ensure vaccine equity. In addition, civil society has an important role to play in identifying priorities and pressuring national governments to coordinate efforts and subnational governments to implement best practices."

Regarding the impact of vaccination on women, Abdenur states that "Making vaccination more equitable is one of the necessary means to help ensure that the long road towards recovering lost gains in women’s rights and strengthening their participation is achieved as part of the pandemic recovery." 

International cooperation is a fundamental path towards achieving this goal. The COVAX Facility, a multilateral mechanism led by the World Health Organization, Gavi and CEPI, is an unprecedented effort to ensure equitable and sustained access to vaccines for all countries, including those that cannot afford it. However, bilateral agreements between countries and vaccine manufacturers threaten its capacity to succeed, as prices are driven up by these deals, demand increases and supply remains limited.

Not only should Latin American countries work at all levels of administration to ensure equitable distribution of the vaccines, they should also make efforts to strengthen COVAX's capacity to deliver vaccines, advocate for intellectual property waivers to build up production capacity and mobilize traditional regional cooperation channels in the region. Rich countries from all regions and vaccines manufacturers can also contribute with donations for countries with fewer resources. Only by applying these measures the world can avoid letting vaccine inequity further aggravate the alarming impacts of  COVID-19 on gender inequalities in Latin America. 

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