Unequal healthcare access during the Covid-19 pandemic in ASEAN and the Pacific 

This op-ed is part of AASYP’s Digital Dialogues 2021, which is a programme that aims to provide a platform and forum for future leaders from across the region to contribute to the policymaking and diplomacy sphere by engaging in issues relating to Gender and Diversity, Green Recovery, and Emerging Economies.

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the difficulties encountered by vulnerable communities, organisations, and people, who frequently lack access to health care and are excluded from policy and social protection measures. Women are disproportionately at risk of being excluded from public health interventions owing to legal or practical restrictions. This creates a systemic weakness in the region’s disease prevention plan.


Source: Global Health Security Index

Pandemics can make it much harder for young women to get treatment and health care. This is exacerbated by numerous overlapping disadvantages, including ethnicity, financial position, disability, age, race, location, and sexual orientation, which impact access and judgment to vital health services and COVID-19 data. Women account for 70 per cent of the public health workforce and are more likely to be front-line health professionals such as nurses, midwives, and health providers. Thus, they are more likely to get infected.

Long-running conflicts exist in several South-East Asian nations, most notably in Myanmar between the military and ethnic armed groups. The United Nations (UN) Secretary-General António Guterres’s appeal for a global ceasefire on 23 March 2020 initially generated a few positive results in the subregion, but they have since expired or — in some cases — broken down. Although the Myanmar Armed Forces proclaimed a temporary national truce on 9 May in response to the Secretary-General’s appeal, the most conflict-affected districts were excluded. The intensification of violence in Rakhine state has worsened the trust gap in the peace process and harmed the civilian leadership’s efforts to push the COVID-19 response.

Women in the poorest rural households are also less likely to make health-care decisions for themselves. More than 23 per cent of the poorest women in Myanmar have no voice in these choices, compared to a national average of 17 per cent. Similarly, in Indonesia, this proportion is 14 per cent among the poorest rural women versus 12 per cent for the typical Indonesian woman. This demonstrates the need of providing inexpensive and high quality health care to all women, to ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all.

The COVID-19 pandemic is having a notably negative impact on women’s mental and emotional wellbeing. Although infection rates and fatality data suggest that males are more likely than females to die from the COVID-19 virus, the emotional toll of the pandemic is disproportionately impacting women in most nations. Increased unpaid care and household work, job and income loss, and the impact of the shutdown on gender-based violence are just a few reasons contributing to greater rates of stress among women.

Good health and well-being and gender equality: what’s next?

As the outbreak progresses at various rates across the Asia-Pacific region, it will be critical to keep track of how health risks, home obligations, and employment vulnerability affect men and women differently. To support the following initiatives, ASEAN and the Pacific need a framework for COVID-19 action across different sectors and with significant collaboration to:

  1. Strengthen sub-regional health systems, expedite progress to improve public healthcare, and expand resilient medical systems with a special emphasis on gender balance to ensure that women and girls have access to COVID-19 health service messaging, all while carefully considering women’s roles as frontline caregivers. 

  2. Address the needs and rights of disadvantaged groups of society as a key part of the socioeconomic response. The use of a gender lens is also required, as is data disaggregation and the participation of women with care duties in welfare programs.

  3. Incorporate a more rights-based approach in the national catastrophe and health emergency guidelines. The United Nations’ peacemaking and peacebuilding instruments are available to all parties to allow an inclusive, human rights-based solution that serves all individuals, regardless of gender. These should be leveraged.

  4. Maintain and strengthen critical services for women, such as health, police, shelter, psychiatric, social, and justice. Form strong regional relationships with civil society and the corporate sector to improve remote delivery of services and to increase awareness of health and safety problems.

A successful health response will need to put aside decades-old disagreements and focus on fostering collaboration and trust among conflicting groups. This approach will also enable cross-functional and cross coordination and collaboration to safeguard vulnerable groups.

This article was written by Anh Quoc Duy Ngo (Luke), edited by Aasha Sriram, and reviewed by the AASYP Publications Team.

Note: The views and opinions expressed in this op-ed are solely those of the writer and in no way represent nor reflect the position of AASYP and members of the AASYP Publications Team. The AASYP Horizons Blog provides a platform for the free expression of opinions and intellectual discourse.

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