Life is hard for everyone during a pandemic. But in a global crisis, it is women who carry extra burdens, says Raquel Lagunas, director of the gender team at the United Nations Development Programme. "Because of their reproductive role in society, they are ones taking care of the kids, the house, the food, the survival of families."
Yet women are also finding time to play a vital role in helping others cope.
Over the span of three weeks in September and October, NPR photographed and interviewed women around the world. They shared their challenges and fears — and how they are overcoming them and helping others as well.
The 7 women profiled below are:
- Iceland's director of health Dr. Alma D. Möller. She used to be lowered on a wire out of rescue helicopters. Now she runs her country's COVID response — and they're doing well.
- Rap music mogul (and single mom) Deng Ge, in Wuhan, China. She formed the "Angel Squad" — women volunteers who got donations to local hospitals.
- Community health worker Ranjana Dwivedi, who lives in an Indian village. Even falling into a river won't keep her from her door-to-door info sessions.
- Teacher Angel Marie Miles in suburban Maryland. She worries about students in Washington, D.C., learning at home — some are crammed into closets to block out noise — and shares daily affirmations like "I am enough."
- Nigerian activist Osas Egbon in Palermo, Italy. The pandemic has brought more urgency to her volunteer work helping women who've been sex trafficked.
- Congresswoman Geraldine Roman is the first openly trans legislator in the Philippines. "In the middle of the pandemic, you feel that nothing is in your control," she says. Her enterprising gardening program is one solution.
- Mexican artist Eva Vale. She's set up "bartender hours" on her Instagram — time for interested folks to talk about whatever they'd like.
Read their stories, check out our special report on 19 women facing the coronavirus crisis — then find out how to nominate a woman to be profiled at the bottom of the story.
It was one of those September days in Reykjavik when you just don't know. The sky was mostly gray, and yet the sun shone through. It might start to rain or clear up completely. But it made for a nice view from Dr. Alma D. Möller's glass-encased office. Not that she had time to enjoy it.
At 3 p.m., she breezed into her office, smiling, in a dark pinstriped suit. She looked like a bank executive, but in fact is Iceland's director of health. Earlier in her career, she was the first female doctor aboard search and rescue helicopters. She'd be lowered from the copter by a wire. That didn't as much prepare her for her current job, she said, as show the world she's not afraid of challenges and hard work.
And the past few months have been hard work, leading a team of around a dozen experts, mostly men, in the fight against COVID-19. Iceland had gone through two waves, mostly without significant restrictions on daily life. By the day of the interview, the number of daily infections was down to the single digits, even none on some days.
"We've tracked and traced, tested thousands. By now, that is business as usual. We're certainly more confident now than six months ago," she said.
"I started following what was happening in mid-January. And it was clear right away that this was a serious disease. Dead people on the streets of Wuhan, Chinese authorities scrambling to build hospitals for thousands. On Jan. 27, I wrote a memo with the chief epidemiologist, detailing our worries. We knew this would reach us, but we didn't anticipate how rapidly the numbers would rise once it did. I sat home, on my couch, going through the data and my daughter snapped a picture of me. I think it shows a lot." She pulls out her phone and finds the picture. It shows Möller focused, not smiling, looking at a stack of papers. Serious stuff. Möller, who is 59 years old, has two children.
"I told people we would get pushed through a meat grinder. It didn't turn out quite that bad, thank goodness." Möller leaned back in her chair and sighed. Today was amazingly different from six months ago. She'd spent parts of the day in a budget meeting that only had a little to do with COVID-19. But she did note that there were six new cases the day of the interview — higher than recent daily counts. A number of them were linked to Reykjavik's largest university, where her daughter is studying law. She said she simply reminded her daughter to be careful. The next day, more infections were diagnosed, and a third wave officially began.
Möller believes planning and preparing for a pandemic, starting in mid-January, had made the biggest difference. But she pointed out that Iceland is a small island with one major gateway. Contact tracing is much easier than elsewhere.
And her role? Well, she said, she's used to hard work and long hours, taking charge and managing teams. And the team was key. Besides, she added with a wry smile, Icelanders really do well in crisis, with volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and crazy weather being frequent.
Being a woman leading a pandemic team was never an issue, she said — and in fact was an asset. "Women think differently than men. I think every team needs people of both genders." She corrects herself: "Of all genders. We need different points of view, different people, on every team."
Once her day is done, she likes to go home to her family and dog. Perhaps slip into the hot tub. Read a book. Watch some TV. And sleep. Women around the world are caregivers, she said, but during stressful times like these they must remember to take care of themselves.
Rap Mogul With An Activist Hustle
On a mid-September Saturday night in Wuhan, China, Deng Ge, founder of the hip-hop record label Bad Commune, walked into 404 Club. Her label was co-hosting a hip-hop party at the bustling venue, and hundreds of fans gathered to see the show.
The sounds of music mixed with people cheering on the dance floor was deafening. Only a few people in the audience were wearing a mask. It's hard to imagine this was the same city that had been at the center of the pandemic just a few months ago.
"It feels like we just woke up from a nightmare," she said.
Deng, 42, a single mom to a 6-year-old daughter, has been a part of Wuhan's music scene for decades. In college, she formed a band when punk rock reigned supreme in the city. Then she discovered rap music. Three years ago, she quit her job as an art school professor to found the all-female rap group Bad Girls. "None of us leans on men," Deng said. "We support each other."
Since COVID-19 cases in Wuhan have slowed down and the city reopened in April, Deng has been able to focus on her music again. But things weren't always like this — especially at the beginning of the pandemic.
Deng first realized the coronavirus outbreak was worse than expected around the beginning of the Lunar New Year in January. She saw a post on WeChat, the Chinese social media platform, of someone selling 10,000 masks — specifically for use in Wuhan.
"I felt something was really going wrong with Wuhan at that moment," Deng recalled. Shortly thereafter, the city announced its lockdown.
Her instinctive reaction was to become a community volunteer, she said. At that time, the outbreak was spreading rapidly. All hospitals were extremely short of medical supplies. Medical workers were desperately calling for help on social media.
Deng said that broke her heart.
She bought the 10,000 masks for 18,000 yuan ($2,650) with her own money and donated them to a medical center. Soon, she organized her own volunteer group with three women to coordinate donations and deliver more supplies to hospitals. Deng called her team the "Angel Squad."
Deng and the Angel Squad "didn't take even one day off" during the nearly 80 days of lockdown. And because she didn't want to worry them, she didn't give her family too many details about what she was doing. She was in and out of medical equipment factories and local hospitals, potentially exposing herself to the coronavirus. Despite the strict lockdown, the government did not interfere. Deng said that's because they recognized how flexible and responsive the volunteers were.
These days, however, life almost feels back to normal, she said.
Deng is about to release Purgatory Pink, Bad Girls' second album. She's hoping to line up more live concert gigs, which are now allowed in Wuhan.
During our conversation, Deng was sitting in her studio, in a tile-roofed house in a part of Wuhan called Hankou. It's close to her daughter's kindergarten. And it has a tiny garden where Deng's cats like to play around.
She reflected on the months she spent living through Wuhan's lockdown, which she described as an "unbelievable and strange time." She even tried not to read any news at the time. "I must stay emotionally stable," she said. "That is the way I protect myself."
All over China, her city is famous for its cherry blossoms. As a local, Deng always thought she'd seen enough of the flowers.
But on the first day after Wuhan reopened, even though the blooming period was almost over and the flowers were about to wither away, she took another look.
"It was the first time in my life that I realized how beautiful they are," she said.
On a sunny morning in mid-September, Ranjana Dwivedi sat at a table strewn with medicines — sachets of oral rehydration salts, iron tablets, painkillers. She was checking to make sure none of them had expired. Later, dressed in a bright purple sari — her uniform — she would go door to door in her village distributing some of those medicines. It's part of her job as a community health worker in the village of Gurguda in central India. (The community health workers are literate but don't have a medical degree and get regular training by the government and nongovernmental groups on subjects like vaccination, maternal care and nutrition.)
And when a pregnant woman in Gurguda goes into labor in the middle of the night, Dwivedi is probably the first person the family calls. For most people in the village, the 42-year-old is their only link to the public health system.
They know her as "Asha didi." Asha is an acronym for ASHA, Accredited Social Health Activist, a program run by India's Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, and Dwivedi's job title. The term asha also means "hope" in many Indian languages. Didi is Hindi for sister, which is an apt name as well. Dwivedi's job includes advising new mothers about breastfeeding, administering vaccines to babies and sharing information about common illnesses such as malaria and dengue.
This summer, Dwivedi found herself on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic. In addition to her regular duties, she handed out masks to villagers, instructed them to social distance and told them to call her immediately if they felt sick.
Initially, COVID-19 cases were concentrated in India's cities, but the virus has been spreading in smaller towns and villages. India is now seeing more new cases every day than any other country, with about 70,000 new infections daily.
For the past few months, Dwivedi has been interacting with dozens of people each day, some of whom might be infected. Even though she wears a mask and uses sanitizer regularly, she's nervous.
"I go straight into the shower when I get back home," Dwivedi says.
But she's used to working in a dangerous environment. Her village is in a hilly, remote part of central India, surrounded by thick forests where wild animals and armed robbers roam. Twice, she's fallen into a river while trying to cross in a boat to reach her patients.
The physical demands of her job aren't the only challenges. During her early days as an ASHA worker, when she went on immunization drives, women would run away and hide from her. They feared the vaccines would harm their children.
Something similar happened during the pandemic, too.
"People would say there's no such thing as corona," Dwivedi says.
But Dwivedi explained to them how the virus works. With the help of her 21-year-old son, she drew posters featuring COVID-19 do's and don'ts. Usually mild-mannered and sweet, Dwivedi says she has to sometimes be stern with people — mostly men — who tend to joke about the virus or shrug off her instructions about masks.
"The extra responsibility of maintaining sanitation during the pandemic falls on women," says Dwivedi. "They are the ones cleaning the groceries or making sure the kids wash their hands when they come from outside."
Dwivedi has been an ASHA worker for nearly a decade. Women trust her, she says. One even named her daughter after her. The sight of a baby or a smile on a new mother's face compensates for all the stress of her job, Dwivedi says.
As for monetary compensation from the government, Dwivedi says she receives little. These days her monthly income comes to about $60, which includes an extra $16 for COVID-19 duties. Across India, ASHA workers have gone on strike in recent months, demanding a hike in wages given the health risks they undertake.
Dwivedi expresses solidarity with the protesters, but says she hasn't taken part in the strikes.
"What if someone needs me here while I'm gone?" she says.
When 43-year-old Angel Marie Miles woke up that Tuesday, she peeked into the living room. A young member of her family was asleep on the couch, cuddled next to Dahlia, her cocker spaniel.
"It's the first time in a long time we've known he's safe and OK," she said, savoring the moment of peace. Just before the pandemic he moved to another state to try living on his own. This was their first time together in months.
Miles has 15 kids to worry about — the fifth-graders in her class at Stanton Elementary, a public school in Washington, D.C. Although "Miss Miles" is 20 miles away in the Maryland suburbs, every morning she has been entering their homes through a tech setup that includes two laptops, a 32-inch TV monitor and a phone.
"I feel like a DJ," she joked, although her laughter faded as she thought about the conditions she regularly witnesses on screen. Some kids are crammed into closets to block out noise. Some frequently disappear. "I've had students say, 'I have to make a bottle for the baby.' They're 11 and they're on a feeding schedule," Miles said.
Miles tries to exert influence by repeating daily affirmations, like the one that morning: "I am enough." The motivational speaking is just as much for her as it is for the students, explained Miles, who hasn't been sure what to do with herself since schools closed. For the first two months, she stayed locked inside her apartment, terrified to take Dahlia for a walk, dreading what would happen if she got sick without any family nearby. "I'm used to living alone, but I got lonely," she said.
Her fear eventually gave way to recklessness. "Like a dog let off leash" is how Miles describes her subsequent burst of partying and drinking, which lasted until around July 4, when something inside told her to stop. "It feels like God put me in that place and said it was time to pull back," said Miles. Now she has surrounded herself with "a positive circle" of accomplished Black women — like her, mostly teachers — who care and communicate.
From the windows of her apartment, Miles has a clear view of both a hospital and a high school. The former is busy. The latter sits eerily silent, a reminder of why her work matters. She started her teaching career in a high school but realized she was too late to help many of her students. She switched because what happens around fifth grade, Miles believes, determines what kind of student a kid will be.
During that morning's reading about westward expansion, several kids fixated on a line in the book about captured slaves. She pounced on the opportunity to dive deeper into African American history. "I can see their brains moving," she said. There was soon another victory, in the form of a note she received from a grandparent of one of her former students. The girl is now in sixth grade, and just like "Miss Miles always told her," she has been speaking up in class — even on the computer. "I imagine her using her voice, being heard. That lifted me up," Miles said.
And then, as always, Dahlia padded over to her, holding a pumpkin-shaped chew toy. It was time for a walk outside before returning home to work on the next day's lesson plan.
At 4 p.m., Osas Egbon arrived at the Moltivolti cafe, in the heart of Palermo's historic neighborhood of Ballarò, tired but relieved.
Egbon is the co-founder of a safe house for victims of sex trafficking. She'd spent much of the day sorting out the necessary paperwork to enroll the children of the residents in schools, which were reopening after Italy's pandemic lockdown. The deadline was here — and one woman had nearly missed it.
Egbon, 46, came to Italy in 2003 from Lagos, Nigeria. Her hope was to earn money to pay for her daughter's education. The child, 8, stayed in Lagos with Egbon's mother.
But when she arrived, Egbon said, "the story changed," and she was forced to work on the streets of Genoa, then Palermo, to repay a debt for her transportation costs running into the thousands of dollars.
Egbon found a way out. Red Cross workers approached her when she was working in a park known as a hub for prostitution.
"They saw me and asked me what is wrong with you, you're not standing in the street with the others," Egbon recalled. "I was afraid, I didn't want to go with them. They continued coming, and one day I said yes." She was taken to a shelter and later offered a job as a caregiver.
Egbon built a life for herself in Palermo. She is married and has two young children. Her husband works as a caregiver for the elderly. But she did not forget her own tragedy.
In 2015, Egbon and other women who'd been trafficked established Donne di Benin City — a reference to the city in Nigeria where trafficked women often begin their trip to Europe, with Sicily as the first port of entry. The organization's goal is to help thousands of trafficking victims who arrive in Italy from Nigeria.
As volunteer president, she's typically on call 24/7, offering support to trafficked women. The traffickers threaten women and their families back home, pressuring them to do sex work on the streets or in connection houses —where men can buy sex, booze and even Nigerian food — to repay their debts.
Four women currently live in her organization's safe house for trafficked women. It used to run a drop-in center offering support and referrals for legal and health services, but it was shuttered last year for building safety issues. She now meets women and listens to their stories at the Moltivolti cafe.
Donne di Benin City also began running a monthly food bank in 2019, assisting about 60 families, including single mothers who escaped their traffickers and were trying to rebuild their lives. Requests for aid shot through the roof during Italy's lockdown.
Egbon is frustrated that even women who have freed themselves from debt often see no other way to earn a living than sex work – and that they don't always realize that, in her opinion, the exploitation they face means they are modern-day slaves.
"They will say, somebody [a trafficker] helps me. I say no somebody [en]slaves you," she said. "It's very difficult because of poverty."
After a cup of coffee, Egbon stepped out into the cobbled, densely populated streets of Ballarò. Migrant communities and working-class locals live side by side in cramped apartments with shutters permanently closed to filter out the burning Sicilian sun — and prying eyes.
Recent events have left Egbon feeling uneasy as she walks the streets of Ballarò, where a series of arrests last year hit the Nigerian criminal groups that had turned the neighborhood into their headquarters.
Egbon's life is busy. Alongside her work with the association, which she likes to stress remains voluntary — it gets scant funding from private donors, the European Union, local churches and ad-hoc collaborations with the municipality — she often travels to Rome for her job as a cultural mediator for trafficking victims for the women's anti-violence nongovernmental organization Differenza Donna.
Her older daughter, who grew up with Egbon's mother in Nigeria is now 20 and about to start university. Egbon is proud she was able to pay for the girl's schooling.
And to add to it all, Egbon is the subject of a documentary now being filmed.
So she looks for moments of calm amid the storm. "Tomorrow is for my children," she said.
Congresswoman Geraldine Roman arrived at a lush backyard garden with her mask on and a flowered paper parasol tipped against her shoulder, shielding her from the blazing midday sun. Green tomatoes clung to their stalks, a raised bed was crowded with broad-leaved pechay, a type of cabbage, and bitter gourds wrapped in brown paper cones to protect against insects hung from vines.
Geraldine Roman, 53, is the first openly transgender person to be elected into the Philippine Congress, a seat she has held since 2016. At the halls of the House of Representatives, Roman has pushed for legislation to support the country's LGBTQ+ community, among other initiatives. But it's the people of Bataan, this rural district 90 miles from the capital, Manila, who voted her in.
Roman is now trying to help her constituents cope with the hunger and uncertainty that have come in the wake of the pandemic. Part of that effort is the gardening program, called Oh My Gulay, a pun using the Filipino word for "vegetable." So far, Roman says, OMG has distributed more than 1,000 gardening kits to her constituents, who have planted the seeds in whatever outdoor space they have. Some have gardens as big as 500 square feet; others are growing vegetables in rows of small pots.
The beneficiaries of OMG at the garden that day, all of them women, most of them grandmotherly, greeted Roman with giddy banter. They made bawdy jokes about the variously sized, nearly ripe eggplants and told Roman it was a shame she had a mask on. "We can't see how beautiful you are!" one of the women said.
With the charm of a natural politician, Roman bantered back, "Are you wearing lipstick under your mask? I put on lipstick!" And she peeled back her mask, delighting the women with a quick peek.
"In the middle of the pandemic, you feel that nothing is in your control," Roman said. The Philippines' strict national lockdown brought the economy to a near halt, and thousands of her constituents — day laborers and small-business owners — lost their livelihoods and quickly ran out of money to buy food. COVID-19 — which has sickened at least 300,000 people in the Philippines, killed more than 5,000 and continues to spread — is maintaining a baseline of high-key stress among Filipinos.
The garden, Roman said, has helped the women "regain a sense of control by planting vegetables and seeing the fruits of their labor." Some who had never grown vegetables before pulled in harvests with upward of 40 pounds of produce, enough to eat and take the surplus to market.
In the Philippines, Roman said, "the concept of public service includes direct service." Her constituents, struggling under the pressures of the pandemic, petition her for help. Roman's phone buzzes with requests on Facebook Messenger or Viber well into the night, and each day, a couple of dozen people show up at the Roman family's ancestral home, which doubles as her office. They wait among life-size statues of Catholic saints and reception desks fitted with plastic barriers to protect her staff from infection.
Their requests paint a picture of how the pandemic is rippling through the lives of Filipinos. Roman has donated money for kidney dialysis and chemotherapy. With public hospitals restricted to treating COVID-19 patients, everyone else has to get treatment at private hospitals, which many can't afford. Using government funds allocated to her office, she bought laptops for students who had no way of attending online classes. And she petitioned the Department of Foreign Affairs to bring home 80 Filipino migrant workers, originally from Bataan, who lost their jobs and were stranded in countries as far-flung as Saudi Arabia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. When government funds for COVID-19 aid were released to the district, she handed out thousand-peso ($20) bills to grateful recipients.
About 80 members of Congress have contracted COVID-19, and two have died, so the current debates over the 2021 budget are mostly conducted over Zoom. The budget will shape how Philippine society recovers, and Roman hopes that her fellow lawmakers will look at the country's failures and the institutional weakness the pandemic revealed — no established pandemic protocols, crumbling health facilities, a lack of a fund for workers and business owners who have lost their incomes, insufficient tech infrastructure to move classes online, an underdeveloped agricultural industry that threatened the national food supply when borders closed — and direct the money to build something better.
"If you do not learn from the lessons the pandemic is teaching us, you're just plain stupid. Or willfully ignorant," Roman said.
The times have been hard for everyone, but Roman has seen the women of her district rise to the challenges with more resolve than the men. "Women are naturally driven; they just fight," she said. "Women, they lose their jobs, they just find ways to earn money and provide food for their families."
It's a dynamic she'd like to see play out on the national stage. "I wish this country was run by more women," Roman said.
Eva Vale is a visual artist who expresses herself on cardboard, wood, acrylic, cement — even napkins. "Textures are very important because they influence design," says Vale, who lives and works in the same space in the western part of Mexico City.
"I'm happy being in my four walls," she said, but when the coronavirus pandemic hit, "everything else outside was upended." Plans to show her work in public spaces, she said, suddenly shattered.
The 36-year-old artist said she felt thrown into a black hole, forcing her to soul-search.
"The pandemic has challenged me to reflect on what I want to create and how I want to express myself," she said.
Her contemporary art is largely representational — it's filled with bright colors and an urban spirit, but often she takes on her Mexican roots. In 2019, she painted "The Nature of the Divine," a huge mural celebrating Mayan culture in the port city of Campeche. Vale's work has been showcased nationally and internationally at various galleries and museums. Other works have been shown at expositions in Milan, Atlanta and Taipei.
Vale has a vibrant personality and an easy laugh. "I love being awake," she says.
During the coronavirus quarantine, she decided to set up something she calls "bartender hours" on Instagram. Followers can book an hour with the artist. She listens to total strangers' unload "their pandemic struggles," she says. It's a one-hour, one-time hit. She doesn't offer solutions, just an ear. She's not a psychologist, she said, but her easygoing personality helps people open up to her.
"Most of the callers are fragile and feel a deep sense of loss," she said. They're home ruminating on decisions made long before the pandemic hit about such things as relationships and professional journeys.
Though the stories are different, there are constants, she said: "anxiety, vulnerability and a deep sense of loss."
She didn't anticipate how this exercise would impact her. Often Vale hears herself in the callers — for instance, a young woman who insisted on portraying herself as a victim, "but she's not a victim, she's just gotten that in her head." Vale said the woman's novela sounded familiar: "I sometimes allow myself to think that I'm a victim." Then she wonders, why does she think that?
Bartender hours will shape her art, she said, because these stories have become a lifeline for her "and a coping mechanism in this pandemic." She sees them as "unforeseen beautiful gifts."
She said this pandemic has taught her to dial back toxicity in her life, to love herself more.
Pre-pandemic, she found it hard "to say no." She said she was eager to "please" and would juggle multiple projects while planning for the next ones.
Vale said predicting the future is a fool's errand, but she and her wife, Lucila Garcia Lourdes, who is also Vale's manager, feel positive about a post-COVID world. They are currently involved in the baby steps of planning an art expo that will show in D.F. and in the central city of San Miguel de Allende. Vale is excited about the possibilities of showing her art again and engaging with the world — even if it has to be done virtually.
Photos by Meghan Dhaliwal. Text by Marisa Peñaloza
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