Dr. Eleanor Nwadinobi is the international president of the Medical Women’s international Association. She is the first president to be elected from Nigeria in the association’s 100-year history. In this interview with ENE OSANG, she speaks about her journey to the peak of the medical profession as well as her thoughts on the recent global health challenge, the Covid-19 pandemic.
Why did you choose the medical profession and how have you evolved over the years?
My parents informed me that as early as the age of five, I announced that I would like to be a doctor soon after seeing a road traffic accident and people rushing to help the victim. After I completed my medical school, I worked first as an anesthetist in the UK and in private practice in Nigeria.
About 12 years after graduating, I came across the maltreatment of widows in the South-east of Nigeria. It became such a burden that I decided I would do something to change the harmful traditional practices against widows and that is when my interest and passion began. When the HIV and AIDS pandemic was its height, widows were most vulnerable and I was invited by the United Nations to work on HIV/AIDS and its impact on women and my journey in development started. I gradually moved from clinical medicine to health and human rights-related work. I then embarked on a master’s in human rights at the European Inter University Centre in Venice, Italy.
Your career choice is one dominated by men, have you ever been discriminated against at work on the basis of gender?
The health profession and medicine in particular is dominated today by women. However, wide gender disparities exist at leadership levels where there is still a glass ceiling. You will find less women as chief medical directors or heads of institutions. This is as a result of the general lack of women in decision making position due to the cultural and traditional barriers that are prevalent in Nigeria.
How does it feel being elected the first international president of MIWA from Nigeria?
As a woman of faith, I am humbled that I have been blessed with this honour as I believe that promotion is from God Almighty.
What benefits would this exalted position bring to Nigeria, especially Nigerian women?
This position is an international position with benefits globally. In this new role, I am privileged to lead over 90 national associations in executing our mandate on improving women’s health globally.
It is of benefit to Nigeria as it positions me as an ambassador for women’s global health and a spokes person for our female doctors and dentists globally. Nigeria can add this honor to her list of influential positions occupied by her citizens in different fields of endeavor around the world.
What would you say got you elected president of the association?
I can attribute this to faith, to belief in myself which was instilled in me by my mother, hard work and perseverance. This position did not come on a platter of gold. I rose through the ranks over a 37-year period.
As an active member of the Medical women‘s Association of Nigeria, I rose to become the president of the Enugu state branch in 1995. Ten years later, I became the national president. I also served on all of the international committees before vying for the post of president-elect 2016. I lost a keenly contested election in Austria in 2016, but in 2019, when the organisation turned a hundred years old, I was installed as President Elect in New York. By December 2019, I was elevated to the position of president.
How would you describe the medical practice in Nigeria considering the constant loggerheads between medical workers and the government?
Nigeria at Independence boasted of having one of the top medical centers in the world. Sadly, our health care system gradually degenerated to a situation where our hospitals were referred to as consulting clinics. The conditions which medical doctors and other health care professionals were subjected to became appalling and they had to seek better opportunities outside of the country.
The brain drain of our healthcare workers coupled with the large appetite of our elite for medical tourism to other countries like UK, US India and Saudi Arabia, further crippled our health care system.
The conditions of work, the poor pay, delayed pay, or no pay at all caused constant tension between the healthcare workforce and the government.
The world is being ravaged by the coronavirus pandemic, what is your take on this situation?
The global coronavirus pandemic is an unseen enemy that has affected the entire world. It is a war that no one picked to fight. Within this war are several battles. There are battles between lives and livelihoods, battles between Frontline workers paying the ultimate price by losing their lives in the process of getting the ultimate prize of saving lives.
Would you say Nigeria’s response to the pandemic is adequate?
Nigeria‘s response has been like that of most other countries in the world. Because this is a virus that nobody has dealt with before. We are literally building the aircraft as it is taking off, we are learning along the way. On one hand the government is bringing in policies and adjusting them as they gain new knowledge. Private sector and philanthropists have responded with overwhelming generously Individuals are in some cases taking responsibility for their safety by complying with hygiene and social distancing measures. On the other hand, other individuals are in denial about the virus and thinking only of their survival on a daily income and the need to feed their families. Generally, humankind has turned more to faith family and to friendships. It is heartwarming to see that in text messages and mails people encourage one another with the words ‘stay well stay safe.’
Health workers are first frontliners in the fight against the spread of Covid-19; do you think they are well catered for in Nigeria to eliminate the virus? What should be the standard?
Covid-19, as I have said before, has brought the world to a standstill with the realisation that health is everything. There is no longer a hiding place for any government that does not realise this and wake up to the fact that they must put their healthcare system in order.
The standard should be the gold standard whilst Covid-19 is the big elephant in the room right now; there are other health indices that Nigeria is associated with such as high maternal mortality and high infant mortality which will need to be urgently addressed.
Additionally, the situation around violence and inadequate services to respond to incidents of violence against women and girls must receive priority attention. Ultimately the answer to ensuring that women and girls are protected lies in the availability of a global treaty to end all forms of violence against women and girls.
We must institutionalise acceptable international best practices and policies that will ensure that patients receive the best services, that health care professionals work under the best circumstances and that universal health care coverage is obtained for every citizen.
The need for gender perspective to be considered in Covid-19 responses has been emphasised. Is this necessary considering that the virus knows no gender?
Gender perspectives and gender considerations need to be part and parcel of our very existence. This is because every aspect of life has different implications for men and women depending on how society has framed stereotypes, roles and responsibilities .Therefore, the impact of any situation including the coronavirus pandemic affects men and women differently.
It has also been argued that the coronavirus pandemic demands women leadership; do you agree with this?
As we go through the challenging and unsettling times during the pandemic and as we consider post- Covid-19 preparedness and positioning, one thing is becoming clear and that is the fact that there will be a new normal – the new normal will be the women’s normal. What do I mean by that? The things that women have come to be recognised for and respected for albeit in informal settings will be the cornerstone upon which the new normal will be anchored. In order to position ourselves adequately and meaningfully for the post Covid-19 era, the world will need to look to the things that are second nature to women such as domestic frugality and socio-economic astuteness, diplomacy from the bedroom to the boardroom, ability to multi-task, ability to mobilise across colour, creed, politics and ethnicity.
Do you think Nigeria would handle the pandemic better if more women occupied leadership positions?
Absolutely, Nigeria as a country in all its ramifications has been firing on one cylinder because of her lack of inclusion of women in decision-making due to cultural, traditional and religious attitudes and beliefs. This has also reflected in her handling of the pandemic. The fact that we have only two females in the presidential task force, for example, should be improved upon. Countries like Germany and New Zealand who have female leadership have responded better to the pandemic and have had better outcomes.
One of the glaring issues that has raised its ugly head during the pandemic is a sharp and exponential increase in violence against women and girls. This violence existed to the scale of one in three women and girls suffering one type of violence or the other before the pandemic and now during the pandemic it has increased.
UN Women has stated that in the first two weeks of lockdown in 22 states there was three-fold increase in cases of domestic violence. This is clearly a pandemic within a pandemic and unfortunately when Covid-19 comes to an end the pandemic of violence against women and girls will continue unless something drastic is done about it. The measure that will have to be taken to bring about change will be a global treaty to end all forms of violence against women and girls.
What lessons would you say Nigeria has learnt or should learn from this global situation in terms of gender equality, women inclusion?
The biggest lesson for every country on earth from this Covid-19 pandemic is that health is wealth. This is not just a cliché, but the reality is that without health there’s no economy, without health you cannot begin to talk off education, agriculture or anything else. Tied to this is the fact that countries have now recognised that the quality in health care systems and the delivery of health care must be addressed as a matter of priority.
Nigeria must therefore take a second look at her health care system ensure that there is a dedicated funding, invest in front line health care workers and must correct the unequal participation of Women in decision making positions broadly and in health care and health delivery system specifically.
What is your view about gender issues in Nigeria? With this pandemic do you think any change can come?
There is an Igbo proverb that says ‘when an individual wakes up, that is their morning.’ Nigeria needs to wake up Nigeria must wake up to address the humongous gender gap that exist along the full spectrum of her endeavours. Change can come and change will come if our leaders in Nigeria have the political will. If they wake up to realise the profound truth about the new reality and the new normal can be found in the women’s normal.