Sunday Daily Editor Rania Borgani attended the Athena Film Festival “Women’s Leadership in the COVID Era” discussion on March 8, 2021 with panelists Dr. Helene Gayle, Attorney General Letitia James, and Kavita Ramdas.

On International Women’s Day, a panel centered around the leadership of women during the COVID-19 era premiered at the Athena Film Festival. And while the pandemic put a swift end to many of the activities we once enjoyed, it could not suppress the support and joy expressed for women on International Women’s Day. Fittingly so, this panel managed to discuss women’s accomplishments during the pandemic, acknowledging the challenges we have all faced but still highlighting and uplifting the women battling this epidemic.

The panel, moderated by Umbreen Bhatti, the Constance Hess Williams Director of the Athena Center, featured many prominent and distinguished voices who all played a different role during this past year. 

The panel began with a question directed at Dr. Helene Gayle, CEO of Chicago Community Trust and former president/CEO of CARE. Dr. Gayle also helped lead a study on vaccine distribution, now used by the federal government. Bhatti asked Dr. Gayle to speak on how COVID-19’s disproportionate impact on certain populations affected vaccine distribution. 

Dr. Gayle began her answer by citing the biggest driving factor behind distribution: equity. In trying to achieve an equitable distribution, she and her team examined the vulnerability index of various geographic areas. The vulnerability index takes into account factors such as race, ethnicity, employment, income, household composition, etc. Because COVID-19 has specifically hurt poorer communities and communities of color, considering other aspects such as race or income allows for more equitable vaccine prioritization. 

Additionally, one often overlooked limitation, is how many vaccination appointments are scheduled online, which can be challenging for families without internet access or for elders who struggle to navigate the internet. These sorts of aspects hinder one’s ability to receive vaccinations and thus privilege certain populations.

Another component of the vaccine rollouts, Dr. Gayle explained, involves the amount of hesitancy in certain communities. She mentioned how she and her team were well aware that the circumstances of the vaccine (occasional politicization, the word “warp-speed” implying limited testing and caution, lack of transparency) added to this distrust of COVID-19 vaccines. 

While she was working during the summer (pre-vaccine approval), Dr. Gayle noted that many, especially Black, communities were not confident in the safety of the vaccines, given past discrimination in healthcare and unethical experimentation. This hesitation was as much a limiting factor as the current, restricted access to vaccines. Therefore, dispelling the danger regarding vaccines was an important part of Dr. Gayle’s work. 

Zooming outside the United States, Bhatti’s next question about COVID-19 responses worldwide, went to Kavita Ramdas, the director of the Open Society Foundations’ Women’s Rights Program, and former president and CEO of the Global Fund for Women. Ramdas responded by categorizing the pandemic as a global “care crisis.” 

Many male leaders tend to characterize the pandemic as war and use similar wartime analogies in speech (“we are at war,” “war footing,” “frontline,” etc.). Ramdas argued that if we were truly at war, the United States would be completely fine given their substantial military budget and artillery of mass weapons.

Truthfully, this is not a “war” but a “care crisis” and the people who provide the care are disproportionately women and girls. Women make up 70% of the world’s healthcare workers. So, while many male leaders continue to refer to the pandemic as war and places like the United States consistently suffer, the women continue to care for everyone else and the women-led countries consistently thrive.  

Despite all their hard work, however, Ramdas points out that women are consistently left out in terms of economic contribution. All the other sorts of economic duties and jobs are entirely dependent on the care work done by women during this pandemic.

Ramdas mentioned how many feminist economists frequently point to the lack of consideration regarding women’s contributions when it comes to calculating GDP. Ramdas explained the existence of a “care tax” that women and girls must pay but do not receive compensation for; staying home with the kids (traditionally done by women) is seen as stepping away from economic activity, but no other economic activity could exist without this sacrifice or “care tax.” 

Highlighting women’s sacrifices and responsibilities during the pandemic should be carried through to post-pandemic, societal norms, according to the third and final panelist, Attorney General of New York Letitia James. She described how COVID-19 has exposed many fault lines: women and people of color are devastated by the pandemic and a racial and gender reckoning with respect to the pandemic’s impact is crucial. 

Attorney General James argued that there will be no “return to normal,” but a new normal that deals with all these issues made even more transparent by the pandemic. She also called for more women to join a seat at the figurative table as women in leadership can help highlight the intersectionality of gender and policy issues. For example, equal pay for equal work is not just a women’s issue, but an economic issue. 

Attorney General James’s statement on the wage gap made me realize how many issues are categorized as belonging to a certain race or gender, while the idea of intersectionality remains overlooked. After all, her parting words were “we are all connected,” made even more true by the virtual setting of the panel. Despite the occasional technical difficulty or echo, I am glad the panel was virtual as I hope as many participants as possible can view this enlightening discussion. 

Before viewing the panel, I had assumed the discussion would mostly promote women working in hospitals or feature discussions on women-led countries whose COVID-19 rates were significantly better than other states. Instead, I listened in on a real conversation about the issues women face socially, economically, and politically. Rather than focus only on working-women, there was also a consistent acknowledgment of stay-at-home mothers and the central theme of care which is at the forefront of many women’s work. 

I found Dr. Gayle’s description of the vaccine rollout process to be fascinating and grounded in reality. And whereas Ramdas’s beliefs were slightly more abstract, they were just as important and her explanation of the “care crisis” left me completely astounded. 

Finally, hearing realizations about a post-pandemic world from a political figure of authority brought the conversation full circle. It was, overall, a perfect trifecta of strong women in powerful positions, having an honest conversation about women and race in and out of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The panel is available to stream in its entirety on the Athena Film Festival YouTube.

Update at 12:40 pm on March 11: Correction made to clarify that Bhatti is the Constance Hess Williams Director of the Athena Center.

A Screenshot from the Panel via the Athena Film Festival YouTube