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Inspiring acts
7 unsung heroes of the pandemic
Incredible people caring for those in need during COVID-19.
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When I was a kid, my image of a hero was largely inspired by my dad’s collection of early Superman comics. I read them all. A “hero” was somebody who had supernatural powers like flying, laser vision, or the strength to bend steel.

As humans, of course, we’re all pretty limited in our physical powers. We don’t fly. We can’t see through walls. But what’s unbounded in us is our ability to see injustices and to take them on—often at great risk to ourselves.

My work in global health and development has introduced me to many extraordinary heroes with this kind of superpower. And I’ve had the honor of highlighting many of them on this blog: An epidemiologist who helped eradicate smallpox. A doctor working to end sexual violence in Africa. A researcher working to end hunger with improved crops. Just to name a few.

Why do we need heroes?

Because they represent the best of who we can be. Their efforts to solve the world’s challenges demonstrate our values as a society and they serve as powerful examples of how to make a positive difference in the world. And if enough people hear about their actions, they can inspire others to do something heroic too.

If there’s ever been a time that we need heroes, it’s now. The COVID-19 pandemic has created unprecedented health and economic challenges, especially for the most vulnerable among us. The good news is that many people from all walks of life are doing their part to help them. Health care workers. Scientists. Firefighters. Grocery store workers. Aid workers. Vaccine trial participants. And ordinary citizens caring for their neighbors.

Here are portraits of a few individuals from around the world working to alleviate suffering during this pandemic. I hope their stories inspire you just as much as they have me.

To these heroes and heroes everywhere, thank you for the work you do!

1. One million bars of soap and counting

For the last four years, Basira Popul has been a dedicated polio worker in Afghanistan, traveling from home to home to help vaccinate children and bring an end to the crippling disease.

Basira Popul knocks on the door of a house during home visits, distributing soap and educating families about the COVID-19 pandemic.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, social distancing restrictions forced the polio workers to pause their vaccination campaigns. But that didn’t stop their efforts to improve the health of the communities they serve. Instead of vaccinating for polio, Basira and thousands of her colleagues are now distributing bars of soap and giving hygiene lessons to curb the spread of the virus.

Basira demonstrates proper handwashing to children in the Surkh-Rōd District, Nangarhar Province, Afghanistan.
Basira speaks with a mother about proper sanitation, hygiene, and handwashing to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Basira demonstrates proper handwashing to children in the Surkh-Rōd District, Nangarhar Province, Afghanistan.
Basira speaks with a mother about proper sanitation, hygiene, and handwashing to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

They have raised awareness of the coronavirus throughout the country and given out more than one million bars of soap to help keep families in Afghanistan safe.

2. It’s a hot and uncomfortable job, but she loves it

As a COVID-19 tester in Bangalore, India, Shilpashree A.S. (Like many people in India, she uses initials referring to her hometown and her father’s name as her last name.) dons PPE, including a protective gown, goggles, latex gloves, and a mask. Then, she steps inside a tiny booth with two holes for her arms to reach through to perform nasal swab tests on long lines of patients.

Shilpashree A.S., a COVID-19 tester and lab technician, tests a patient who exhibits COVID-19 symptoms, from within a booth at the Jigani Primary Health Center in Bengaluru, India.

She has a critical job during this pandemic, but it comes with many hardships. “It’s hot and uncomfortable,” Shilpashree said of the hours she spends dressed in layers of protective gear inside the booth.

Shilpashree and other health workers get organized to carry out tests on the side of the road in Bengaluru, India.
Patients line up at the Jigani Primary Health Center for COVID-19 testing in Bengaluru, India.
Shilpashree and other health workers get organized to carry out tests on the side of the road in Bengaluru, India.
Patients line up at the Jigani Primary Health Center for COVID-19 testing in Bengaluru, India.

The challenges continue after work. To prevent the spread of the coronavirus, she is not allowed to have contact with her family. For the last five months she’s only been able to visit with them on video calls. “I haven’t yet seen my children or hugged them,” she said. “It is like seeing a fruit from up-close but not eating it.” Still, there is no other job she would rather be doing right now. “Even though this involves risk, I love this job. It brings me happiness,” she said.

After a long day of testing, Shilpashree inputs the test results into a centralized database.

3. Trial benefits

Scientists around the world are racing to develop a coronavirus vaccine. There are more than 150 vaccine candidates in development and dozens of trials underway. All these trials need volunteers willing to step forward and help test whether the vaccine is effective and safe. One of those volunteers is Thabang Seleke from Soweto, South Africa.

Thabang Seleke plays with his youngest child in front of his home in South Africa after returning from the clinic where he is participating in Africa’s first COVID-19 vaccine trial.

Thabang is participating in the first African trial of the ChAdOx1 nCoV-19 coronavirus vaccine, which was developed by the Jenner Institute at the University of Oxford. It is also undergoing trials in the UK, U.S., and Brazil. The South Africa trial involves 2,000 volunteers within the Soweto area of Johannesburg, and is being run by Shabir Madhi, Professor of Vaccinology at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.

Thabang, who lives in Soweto, South Africa, takes a local taxi to visit the clinic where researchers will monitor his symptoms and immune responses during the vaccine trial.
Thabang has blood and swab samples taken during each visit to the clinic to make sure he remains COVID-19 negative and there are no negative side effects from the vaccine.
Thabang, who lives in Soweto, South Africa, takes a local taxi to visit the clinic where researchers will monitor his symptoms and immune responses during the vaccine trial.
Thabang has blood and swab samples taken during each visit to the clinic to make sure he remains COVID-19 negative and there are no negative side effects from the vaccine.
Thabang double checks his vaccine trial paperwork after finishing his clinic visit.
Professor Shabir Madhi, who is managing the South African vaccine trial, shows Thabang how to fill in his diary card where he will log his symptoms and any side effects he may experience from the vaccine.
Thabang double checks his vaccine trial paperwork after finishing his clinic visit.
Professor Shabir Madhi, who is managing the South African vaccine trial, shows Thabang how to fill in his diary card where he will log his symptoms and any side effects he may experience from the vaccine.

In South Africa, more than 600,000 people have been diagnosed with COVID-19 and more than 13,000 people have died from it since March. Thabang heard about the trial from a friend and stepped forward to join to help bring an end to the coronavirus in Africa and beyond. This trial, Thabang said, “will benefit the whole world.”

Thabang poses with his family outside their home in Soweto.

4. The best of humanity at a time of crisis

Sikander Bizenjo, founder of Balochistan Youth Against Corona, smiles with children in an isolated tribal settlement in Naal, Balochistan, Pakistan, after distributing food assistance to the community.

When COVID-19 spread into Pakistan, Sikander Bizenjo knew where the pandemic would have the biggest impact: on the poorest areas of his country, including places like his home province of Balochistan. More than 70 percent of the population in this arid, mountainous region in southwestern Pakistan lives in poverty and struggles to gain access to education and health care.

Balochistan Youth Against Corona volunteers pack ration bags for the food distribution drive.
A young child stands inside their home after receiving a ration bag and soap from Balochistan Youth Against Corona.
Balochistan Youth Against Corona volunteers pack ration bags for the food distribution drive.
A young child stands inside their home after receiving a ration bag and soap from Balochistan Youth Against Corona.

Sikander had moved away from Balochistan to Karachi, where he is now a manager at a business school. But he knew he needed to do something to help his home during the pandemic. After reaching out to local government officials and aid organizations, he learned that many families lacked food and that health facilities had shortages of medical equipment. So he founded a group called the Balochistan Youth Against Corona, which raises funds for monthly food rations for 10,000 households in Balochistan as well of personal protective equipment, masks, face shields and hand sanitizers for frontline health workers.

Sikander works on the distribution drive from his grandfather’s home in Naal, Balochistan.
Sikander speaks to villagers about the importance of soap and handwashing to prevent the spread of COVID-19 while distributing soap packets to them.
Sikander works on the distribution drive from his grandfather’s home in Naal, Balochistan.
Sikander speaks to villagers about the importance of soap and handwashing to prevent the spread of COVID-19 while distributing soap packets to them.

The support from other volunteers and donors has been overwhelming, he said. “I’ve seen the very best of humanity come out of this pandemic. People have been supporting us. People have been so kind and generous,” he said.

5. Tuning into better health with Sister Banda

If you have a question about COVID-19 in Zambia, you’ll want to tune into FM 99.1 Yatsani Community Radio. You’ll get advice on how to prevent the spread of the coronavirus from Catholic nun and social worker Sister Astridah Banda.

Catholic nun and social worker Sister Astridah Banda prepares to record her COVID-19 Awareness Program on Yatsani Community Radio in Lusaka, Zambia.

Sister Banda is not a doctor, but she is a passionate public health advocate. When the coronavirus arrived in Zambia, she noticed that most of the public health bulletins about social distancing, masks, and handwashing were being written in English. While English is an official language in Zambia, many people speak one of Zambia’s seven local languages and they were missing out on this critical information. Sister Banda wanted everyone to have access. So, in March, she approached Yatsani Community Radio and asked to start broadcasts where she could translate health bulletins into Zambia’s local languages and provide other critical news on the coronavirus. Her show, which airs several times each week, is produced in a talk show format with various guests who discuss specific health topics and answer questions from callers.

When she’s not on the air, Sister Banda gives lessons to community leaders in Lusaka, Zambia on how to prevent the spread of COVID-19, including good hand washing practices.
Sister Banda (right) with Sister Christabel Kazembe preparing face masks for community distribution in Lusaka, Zambia.
When she’s not on the air, Sister Banda gives lessons to community leaders in Lusaka, Zambia on how to prevent the spread of COVID-19, including good hand washing practices.
Sister Banda (right) with Sister Christabel Kazembe preparing face masks for community distribution in Lusaka, Zambia.

It now reaches more than 1.5 million people, creating a community of listeners looking out for one another to get through this pandemic. “The whole pandemic has brought humanity together,” she said. “We realize that our life is actually short and we need to spend most of it building on what is important. And these are relationships. Getting in touch with one another, being there for each other.”

6. “The answers lie within each of us”

When the first cases of COVID-19 were reported in the Navajo and Hopi Reservations, Ethel Branch grew alarmed that her community didn’t have what it needed to deal with the virus.

A building near the highway depicting mask awareness in the time of COVID-19 on the Navajo reservation in Cameron, Arizona.

The Navajo and Hopi Reservations have many elderly people living without electricity or running water who would need support. She decided she should try to do something about it. Ethel, a former attorney general for the Navajo Nation, resigned from her job at a law firm. She created a GoFundMe page and built an organization called Navajo Hopi Solidarity to help bring relief to the elderly, single parents, and struggling families. To date, she has raised over $5 million. Other community members also found ways to help, including Wayne Wilson and his son, Shelvin, who deliver water to dozens of families in need.

Ethel Branch, founder of Navajo Hopi Solidarity, a COVID-19 relief organization, poses with her 6-month old son in Flagstaff, Arizona.
Many parts of the Navajo Nation don’t have access to water. Wayne Wilson and his son Shelvin bring water to vulnerable families throughout the reservation.
Ethel Branch, founder of Navajo Hopi Solidarity, a COVID-19 relief organization, poses with her 6-month old son in Flagstaff, Arizona.
Many parts of the Navajo Nation don’t have access to water. Wayne Wilson and his son Shelvin bring water to vulnerable families throughout the reservation.

Ethel’s organization has assisted 5,000 families across the reservations. She works with young volunteers from the reservations to deliver food to those in need. “It’s been really amazing. The teamwork, people just stepping forward and making things happen,” she said. “The answers lie within each of us. Each of us has the ability to make choices and to take action and have a positive impact on our community.”

Volunteers for the relief organization Navajo Hopi Solidarity deliver food to families in need in Chinle, Arizona.

7. A long journey to better women’s health

Even before COVID-19, Laxmi Rayamajhi’s job providing birth control services in the remotest areas of Nepal was never easy.

Laxmi Rayamajhi hikes to provide family planning services at Bela, Panchkhal Municipality-10, Kavrepalanchok, Nepal.

As a community health worker for Marie Stopes International, she hikes for hours over hazardous terrain, crossing rivers and landslides to reach the villages she services. But the pandemic has created new obstacles. A national lockdown, supply chain disruptions, and overwhelmed health facilities have all made it more difficult to deliver sexual and reproductive health care services to women in Nepal. And many women won’t visit local health facilities to seek care because they fear they will be infected with the coronavirus.

Laxmi talks to local women about family planning and reproductive health.
Laxmi counsels one of her clients at a remote health post in Nepal.
Laxmi talks to local women about family planning and reproductive health.
Laxmi counsels one of her clients at a remote health post in Nepal.

These healthcare challenges are being experienced by women throughout the world. According to one estimate, if these disruptions continue,49 million additional women in low- and middle-income countries will go without contraceptives over the next year, leading to 15 million additional unplanned pregnancies. Still, Laxmi and thousands of care providers like her are working tirelessly to overcome these obstacles.

Laxmi inserts a long-lasting contraceptive implant in a client visiting a remote health post in Nepal. The implant prevents pregnancy for up to 5 years.

Laxmi continues to make her long journeys through Nepal to remote health posts to provide care to women in need. For those not comfortable seeing her in-person, she now provides phone consultations. “With my efforts, if women’s health gets better, and creates a healthy impact in our communities, I am grateful,” she said.

Meet more of my heroes in the field

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