It’s been twenty-six years since the International Conference on Population and Development affirmed women’s reproductive health as an essential human right. In this episode of A Deeper Look, I sit down with Ann Starrs, Director of Family Planning at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, to hear how new products, policies and practices are disrupting the family planning landscape and offering greater access and better outcomes for users.
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The COVID-19 pandemic has created a seismic upheaval in global health care and individual health testing and treatment. Previous gains in reducing life-threatening chronic diseases are being eroded by the need to turn attention and resources to the pandemic. It feels like a “Snakes and Ladders” board game: The counter has landed on the head of a snake and programs for other diseases have slid to the bottom of the board, landing many years behind.
Wealthy nations are now fragile states. Climate change poses an existential threat to humanity. And, the damage done by a global pandemic is not yet fully known but has already erased a decade of progress in the fight against extreme poverty. We are living in a world where crises are proliferating and take much longer to resolve. Some never end.
My guest for this episode of A Deeper Look, Heba Aly, is drawing attention to the many forces disrupting the world and the implications for us all. Heba is the Director of the New Humanitarian, host of the podcast Rethinking Humanitarianism, and a career journalist. Heba is questioning everything from the power dynamics in aid to the increasingly intertwined nature of humanitarian response and development.
2020 will go down in history as a year of global health, economic and social crises occurring against the backdrop of increasingly catastrophic climate events. It is a year that defines disruption. However, as we jump into 2021, I’m taking a cue from last season’s development optimists to look for how to convert crisis into opportunity. This year, I will explore with my guests how they see us leveraging disruption for good in a post-COVID world.
We started the 2020 season of A Deeper Look by discussing trends that are shaping the future of human development. Little did we know the extent to which a global pandemic would shake and shape our world and set the course for human development work for years to come. While many major trends have been emerging for years, COVID-19 has shifted their trajectories and amplified challenges in ways that are expected to slow — and in some cases reverse — development progress.
Nevertheless, when I asked each of my guests this season whether they were pessimistic or optimistic about the future, I heard almost unanimous optimism and faith in human resilience, ingenuity and adaptability.
This year’s conversations with leaders, innovators and humanitarians yielded valuable insights and observations. Here are some of the key takeaways from this season of looking at the shape of things to come:
A little more than a month after World AIDS Day 2019, COVID-19 started to impact our HIV programs in Asia as countries like Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam began quarantine. Community testing ground to a halt. People living with HIV worried about access to their medications. HIV pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) enrollment slowed. COVID-19 testing diverted laboratories from HIV services. By March 2020, the rest of the world was equally impacted. FHI 360’s HIV programs were determined to continue serving people, but there were deep concerns. We were not alone, of course; the global HIV community was facing COVID-19 together. But with so much uncertainty, we wondered: Would COVID-19 substantially set back hard-won gains toward epidemic control? Did we have the tools in hand, or could we develop the tools, to weather this crisis?
We have come a long way from the haunting, early days of the HIV pandemic when hopelessness characterized the situation for children living with HIV. Without treatment available, approximately half of those children were destined to die before their second birthday. The global public health community did not know if it could halt transmission of HIV from mother to child. There were no effective, child-friendly formulations of antiretroviral therapy (ART).
Since the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, many countries have reported alarming rates of violence, exploitation and other abuse, especially intimate partner violence among women and other marginalized groups. UN Women has warned that, as countries continue lockdowns and sheltering-at-home measures, a shadow pandemic of violence is growing. More than ever, the United Nation’s 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence is an important opportunity for international development organizations to commit to identifying ways to prevent and respond to violence, exploitation and other abuse in the communities where humanitarian and development projects are being implemented.