Raj Panjabi: Address bias, health worker pay gaps to end malaria

Raj Panjabi speaks at the TED2018 conference. Photo by: Ryan Lash / TED Conference / CC BY-NC-ND

There are now more than three dozen countries and territories certified by the World Health Organization as malaria-free. But to help more nations eliminate the disease, the global community needs to “reach the unreached” and invest in community health workers, said Raj Panjabi, the new U.S. global malaria coordinator for the President's Malaria Initiative.

“There are still too many people who live out of reach of the health workers, the tests, the sprays, the medicines that are needed where mortality still is high from malaria,” Panjabi said during a virtual forum Wednesday co-hosted by the World Health Organization and the RBM Partnership to End Malaria in advance of World Malaria Day on Sunday.

“We have to focus on those areas, and sometimes that means confronting what some have called ‘structural urbanism’: the idea — the bias — that people in remote communities or rural areas are too hard to reach or too expensive to serve,” he added.

He also underscored the need to invest “with dignity” in community health workers by paying them and abolishing pay gaps, particularly for women in such roles.

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“It has shocked me to hear that $1 trillion of labor by women on the front lines, including as community health workers ... goes unpaid. One trillion dollars of unpaid labor every year — that's larger than the economies ... of over 150 countries,” he said.

“So we have to demand abolishing this pay gap for women on the front lines if we're going to have any chance at ending ... malaria,” he added.

A joint report by WHO and Women in Global Health in 2019 showed that women working in the health sector contribute 5% to global gross domestic product but that roughly half of this is unpaid labor.

The United States is the largest source of funding for malaria control and elimination globally, providing $1.1 billion in 2019 through bilateral and multilateral channels, according to the “World Malaria Report 2020.”

Before taking on the role of U.S. global malaria coordinator, Panjabi served as CEO for 14 years at Last Mile Health, which he co-founded in 2007. In that role, Panjabi also championed community health workers in country health programs and responses to disease outbreaks, such as COVID-19.

About the author

  • Jenny Lei Ravelo

    Jenny Lei Ravelo is a Devex Senior Reporter based in Manila. She covers global health, with a particular focus on the World Health Organization, and other development and humanitarian aid trends in Asia Pacific. Prior to Devex, she wrote for ABS-CBN, one of the largest broadcasting networks in the Philippines, and was a copy editor for various international scientific journals. She received her journalism degree from the University of Santo Tomas.