Arab International Women’s Forum highlights pandemic challenges, race for vaccine

Thu, 2020-07-30 13:19

LONDON: The Arab International Women’s Forum (AIWF) has drawn together experts from the Middle East and internationally to examine some of the key challenges raised by the coronavirus pandemic. 
In her introduction to the virtual event, held in cooperation with global partner Pfizer, AIWF founder and Chairwoman Haifa Al-Kaylani paid tribute to “the women at the frontline of the coronavirus crisis — women in science, research, policy development, health care, the media, and women who are caregivers, mothers and community leaders.”

The panel was moderated by AIWF board member Dr. Oualae Al-Alami, vice president cluster lead at Pfizer Biopharmaceutical Group and chair of the Regional Diversity & Inclusion Council for Pfizer Africa. 

The speakers were Dr. Maryam Matar, founder and chairwoman of the UAE Genetic Diseases Association; Dr. Graciela Morales, vice president and Pfizer vaccines lead for emerging markets; and Dr. Fadi El-Jardali, professor of health policy and systems and chairman of the Health Policy and Management Department at the American University of Beirut.

Al-Alami noted that women account for 70 percent of health services personnel. “They’re on the frontlines, sometimes sacrificing their lives for patients and their families during the crisis,” she said.

“Typically there’s a pay gap, with women earning 80 percent of the wages of their male counterparts.”

The experiences of women coping amid the pandemic have shed light on how the structure of societies has a notable impact on stress and resilience levels. 

Dr. Maryam Matar is the founder and chairwoman of the UAE Genetic Diseases Association. (Supplied)

Matar said pressures on women in the UAE were mitigated by the way society is structured around extended families. 

“I’d like to pay tribute to the importance of the extended family within the UAE which provides women with important psychological support,” she added. 

“A woman might be working as a nurse or a teacher but she has the support of her mother or mother-in-law. It’s very important to emphasize the importance for any community where women are on the frontline to have a safety net for them when it comes to economic and psychological support.” 

Matar said the UAE was in a good state of preparedness when the pandemic struck, thanks to crisis planning and long-term investment in developing resources.

“In 2019, we had a big conference in Abu Dhabi dealing with disaster and crisis management. We were discussing a scenario of what might happen in a pandemic with specific reference to the 2020 Expo.

This exercise put us on our toes and made us think through the various scenarios. We went through a very tough exercise to formulate a response. This planning demonstrated the vision of our UAE leader,” she added.

“We have to remember that when we’re talking about the UAE, we aren’t just talking about Emiratis — we’re talking about 200 nationalities. In the UAE, we understand the role of non-Emiratis in helping us to build our country,” she said.

The panel was moderated by AIWF board member Dr. Oualae Al-Alami. (Supplied)

“At the same time, however, it’s very important for us to have our own nationals in a position to take the lead in the implementation of policies throughout the chain of response, not just in emergencies but in every respect.”

Matar noted that it had taken decades of work to build capabilities, including investment in education and the forging of public-private partnerships (PPP).

“The participation of women in combating this crisis on the frontline didn’t happen overnight. It took 50 years to build up this capability within the community,” she said.

“We’ve learnt the importance of planning and clear vision. A key element in dealing with the crisis has been very effective public-private partnerships.”
In relation to the role of the World Health Organization (WHO), Matar said she would have liked to see a more nuanced approach better fitted to the widely varying conditions within countries across the Middle East and North Africa. 

“With regard to dealing with the pandemic, it’s clear that there’s no single WHO policy which should be applied universally to all nations. This is a strong lesson for all decision-makers. Policies should be made to fit the needs and situations of each country and region,” she added. 

“Previously, the WHO has always had this approach of defining countries according to regions. I believe this should be reformed as per the needs of individual countries, not regions,” she said.

“There are major differences in the preparedness of each country and the vulnerabilities of their populations. We need, for example, to have plans for food and job security.”

Dr. Graciela Morales said vaccines are the only long-term solution for ending this pandemic. (Supplied)

In relation to the global efforts underway to develop a vaccine, Morales said there have been unprecedented levels of cooperation. 

“The pharma industry sector has been working together through collaborative networks and platforms. We’re in a race against the virus, and these have been challenging times,” she added.

“This has been an opportunity to recognize the collective advantage of all sectors working together and sharing knowledge. We’re confident that science will win.”

She said vaccines are the only long-term solution for ending this pandemic. Pfizer is “testing four vaccines simultaneously to increase our chances of success with the highest safety profile possible and in the shortest possible time,” she added.

“We have early positive data from one of the candidate vaccines, and overall the preliminary data is encouraging … What we can say at this point is that there’s a viable vaccine candidate based on the data we have to date,” she said. 

“We’ve worked hard to secure our production capacity for all our products during the pandemic to ensure that all in need of treatment will have the possibility of receiving it. At the same time, Pfizer is scaling up manufacturing to be ready to produce and supply the vaccine.”

El-Jardali said governments could do more to support PPP in the development of vaccines. “Many countries talk about public-private partnerships, but in reality, in this time of crisis this concept has broken down. There has been a lot of dysfunction in PPP, and we’ve seen in many cases that the PPP relationship is mostly contractual,” he added.

“It should mean sharing both benefits and risks, but in some countries we’ve seen that the private sector opted out and tried to leave the public sector dealing with the implications of the coronavirus for economic reasons,” he said.

“We need to revisit the frameworks for PPP and to have better regulation, especially in middle-income countries.” 

El-Jardali said lessons that should have been learnt in relation to recent outbreaks of infectious diseases have not been acted on.

“In relation to vaccines, we’ve had over the past two decades five major disease outbreaks, but the response came late because of the market-based approach to investment,” he added.

“We all know that the private sector invests in vaccines when they have a protected, profitable market. What has been missing has been the role played by the government. What are governments doing to change and modify the incentive for the R&D (research and development) model so that the pharma industry can take a more proactive approach to investing in vaccines before crises become overwhelming?” he said.

“We haven’t learnt the lessons of the past two decades because it has been abundantly clear that if a pandemic came along we’d have a problem with vaccines, but nothing has been done to address this. Governments should’ve been much more proactive in working with the private sector and pharma industry to create push and pull incentives.”

The webinar was attended by over 240 participants from 31 countries, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Palestine, Morocco, Oman, Tunisia, Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon, Switzerland, Belgium, Germany, France, Canada, the US, the UK, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, India, Ghana, Kenya and Pakistan.

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Source: AN-Food and Health
Arab International Women’s Forum highlights pandemic challenges, race for vaccine