Pandemic Changemakers: How 7 Women Are Lifting Up Their Communities

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Deng Ge ran a rap record label in Wuhan, China, before the pandemic hit. She started the Angel Squad to help citizens cope during the lockdown.

Image provided by Deng Ge


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Dr. Alma D. Möller, Iceland’s director of health, in her office in Reykjavík.

Sigga Ella for NPR


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Sigga Ella for NPR

The Chief Of Health Stays Calm In A Storm

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.

I told people we would get pushed through a meat grinder. It didn’t turn out quite that bad, thank goodness.

«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.

Alma Möller’s daughter took this photo of Möller reviewing data at an early stage of the pandemic.

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Siga Ella for NPR

«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.

The view from Möller’s office. The building is Hofdi House, where, in 1986, President Ronald Reagan met with General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev of the Soviet Union.

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Sigga Ella for NPR

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.

Photos by Sigga Ella. Text by Ingólfur Bjarni Sigfússon

Rap Mogul With An Activist Hustle

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Deng Ge, head of the rap label Bad Commune.

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Goats and Soda
Portraits Of Resilience: How 19 Women Around The Globe Face The Pandemic

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.

None of us leans on men. We support each other.

«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.

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Members of the Bad Girls rap group, which was started by Deng Ge, pose with audience members at a pre-pandemic hip-hop party. Now that the coronavirus is under control in Wuhan, audiences are once again gathering for concerts.

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Ranjana Dwivedi, a community health worker, goes door to door in Gurguda, a village in central India.

Rishikesh Dwivedi


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Rishikesh Dwivedi

Falling Into A River Won’t Stop This Community Health Worker

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.

Dwivedi, in purple sari, shares health information with women in the village. COVID-19 is a hot topic.

Rishikesh Dwivedi


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Rishikesh Dwivedi

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.

COVID-19 do’s and don’ts. Dwivedi and her 21-year-old son, Rishikesh, drew this poster to help people in Gurguda understand the coronavirus.

Rishikesh Dwivedi


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Rishikesh Dwivedi

«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.

Photos by Rishikesh Dwivedi. Text by Sushmita Pathak

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Angel Miles is happy to have a dog for comfort after a tough day of virtual teaching from her home in Laurel, Md.

Dee Dwyer for NPR


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Dee Dwyer for NPR

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Miles, a fifth-grade teacher, says she feels like a DJ with all the electronic equipment she uses to teach remotely.

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Dee Dwyer for NPR

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Osas Egbon, co-founder of a group that helps women who’ve been trafficked for sex work, at a cafe in Palermo where she meets with women she’s seeking to help.

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Lucia Buricelli for NPR

For a documentary about her life and activism, the director asked Egbon to demonstrate a dance reflective of her African heritage.

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Lucia Buricelli for NPR

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.

«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.

Photos by Lucia Buricelli. Text by Ylenia Gostoli

Geraldine Roman, the first openly transgender person to be elected to the Philippine Congress, visits a vegetable garden in Bataan. She leads a program called Oh My Gulay — gulay is Tagalog for «vegetables.» It encourages people to grow vegetables to eat and sell and is aimed especially at those who have lost income as a result of the pandemic.

Hannah Reyes Morales for NPR


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Hannah Reyes Morales for NPR

Wishing That More Women Were In Charge

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.

Roman speaks to community members in Samal, Bataan, during a visit to one of their gardens.

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Hannah Reyes Morales for NPR

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.

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Roman harvests produce from a vegetable garden in Bataan.

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Hannah Reyes Morales for NPR

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Eva Vale, a visual artist, outside her home in Mexico City.

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Meghan Dhaliwal for NPR

Images from Vale’s series «Honeypot.»

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Meghan Dhaliwal for NPR

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, right, and her wife, Lucila Garcia Lourdes.

Meghan Dhaliwal for NPR


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Meghan Dhaliwal for NPR

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

Nominate A Woman

We’d like to tell more stories about women’s lives in the pandemic.

Is there a woman in your community who has overcome great challenges in their personal lives? Or is helping others with their challenges? Send an email to goatsandsoda@npr.orgwith your nomination, with «Women’s Stories» in the subject line. We may feature them in a future story on NPR.org.

  • COVID-19
  • pandemic
  • coronavirus
  • women

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