June 05, 2020

Sheryl Sandberg & David Miliband

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and International Rescue Committee president David Miliband team up to discuss how COVID-19 will affect women and girls worldwide. They say the pandemic poses a particular threat to girls’ education in the developing world and is increasing sexual violence. They also discuss combating misinformation.

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She’s among the most powerful people in tech. He responds to global emergencies. This week on Firing Line.

SANDBERG: Resilience is a muscle and we build it. 

Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg is known for many things — including her trademark phrase…

SANDBERG: Lean in for now. 

SANDBERG: Do not lean back, lean in. 

Whenever there’s a crisis around the world David Miliband and his organization respond

MILIBAND: This is the arrival scene at the Imvepi Camp

With COVID-19 spreading in the developing world, they’ve teamed up 

SANDBERG: It’s a remarkably challenging time. 

MILIBAND: We have only weeks to prepare 

What do Sheryl Sandberg and David Miliband say now? 

Firing Line’ with Margaret Hoover is made possible by the Margaret and Daniel Loeb Foundation. Robert Graneiri through the Vanguard Donor Advised Fund, the David Tepper Charitable Foundation Inc. The Asness Family Foundation. The Kahng Foundation. Additional funding is provided by. Corporate funding is provided by Stephens Inc. 

HOOVER: Welcome to Firing Line, Sheryl Sandberg. And welcome back to Firing Line David Miliband. 

MILIBAND: Good to be with you. 

SANDBERG: Thank you for having us. 

HOOVER: David, you are the president and the CEO of the International Rescue Committee. And Sheryl, you are, of course, the chief operating officer of Facebook. And the two of you teamed up to write an article entitled. A Second COVID Crisis is Coming. The subtitle was, “If We Don’t Act Now, women and girls will be suffering from the pandemic’s fallout for decades.” Sheryl, I’d like to go to you first. Why did you and David team up to write this op ed?

SANDBERG: Well, every time there’s an emergency, it exacerbates underlying inequality, and vulnerable populations are often hit the hardest. And all over the world, that is women and girls. And so when you have a crisis like this, if we don’t have a gender lens on this, if we aren’t focused on preventing gender based violence increases, which are already happening, and making sure women and girls get the resources and the services and the funds they need, this is going to hit them even harder than everyone else. And that’s why David and I are raising our voices and making sure that the world pays attention to see that.

MILIBAND: I was very keen to write this article because we’re living at a time when governments around the world are in retreat from big global problems. They’re focusing only on the home front. Of course, we understand governments have to take care of their own citizens, but it’s pure myopia to neglect the global scene. And at a time when governments are in retreat from big, complex global problems, it takes NGOs and corporates to come together to provide some leadership and that’s what leadership of ideas. And that’s what we are trying to do. 

HOOVER: It seems to me that even though men are the most obvious victims of COVID 19 — and it’s men of color in particular who are dying in the highest rates — it is women that have a different level of vulnerability, women and girls, that have a different level of vulnerability to this disease. Can you explain why?

SANDBERG: Women and girls do the great majority of the world’s work, 70 percent of the world’s caregiving work. They are the majority of the world’s health care workers. They earn a very small fraction of the world’s income, and they own even less of the world’s property. And women girls have less access to every resource that matters, to health care, to clean water, to education, women and girls have less. 

MILIBAND: This is a double emergency. There’s a health emergency in respect of COVID. And Sheryl is so right to draw attention to the fact that 70 percent of the world’s health care workers are women. But it’s also a social and economic emergency as well. That’s the double end of the emergency. We know that domestic violence is rising. We know that women’s incomes are falling precipitously. And we also know that women are bearing the brunt of the extra work that’s being generated at home from this crisis. And so both ends of the emergency require a lens that recognizes the inequalities of power that face women and girls around the world. And it’s a time when this needs to be loudly said, because I’m afraid, although there’s been rhetoric around this for the last 20 years, there’s not enough action. 

HOOVER: I’d like to talk about what’s at stake here. Because I think prior to this crisis– David, you said there’s been a lot of rhetoric, but not enough action. But I think the international community was feeling like in the last 20 years, quite a bit has been done to improve the conditions for women and girls around the world. Do you, do you disagree? 

MILIBAND: Well, certainly in the 25 years since the Beijing conference in 1994, there has been progress. But it remains the case that on every indicator — poverty, education, morbidity — women and girls are suffering more.

SANDBERG: And while there has certainly been progress over the last twenty five years, I don’t think anyone thinks the progress is good enough. We have 130 million girls worldwide who aren’t in school. You know, 200 million girls are victims of genital mutilation. We still have one in three women getting married at very, very young ages, and huge numbers of domestic violence and sexual assault and abuse all over the world, a lot of which gets exacerbated by this crisis. There are also women and girls having babies. And when we pull maternal health care, we know that maternal deaths, child deaths before age 1 and 5 can increase. We saw that with other virus outbreaks. We’ve seen that in other emergency situations and we’re going to see that here if we don’t really all pay attention. 

HOOVER: I’d like to pick up on two things both of you just mentioned. The first is education, right? To the extent that advancements have been made in terms of educating girls around the world, how is that education put at risk in the face of the COVID 19 pandemic?

SANDBERG: Girls have less access to education, they are less likely to be in school in the first in the first place. When there needs to be more work done in the home. Lean In my foundation has been doing survey work we’re releasing later this week. It’s very clear that women and girls are doing more than men and boys. So all over the world when there’s more domestic work to be done, girls do that first. And if parents have a choice between keeping a boy and a girl in school, they’ll often focus those educational resources on the boy because they think they need to for survival.

MILIBAND: We also have evidence from previous crises that when pupils are sent out of school, when schools close, it’s the girls who don’t go back. And at a time when 90 percent of the world’s children are not in school, there’s a great danger that those girls who gain from the progress over the last 20 years, for whom there is an education place, lose their place. And then the prospects for those, especially in fragile and conflict states, that they don’t get the chance to fulfill the educational dreams, and never mind their life dreams. They and we can’t afford that.

HOOVER: The other idea that you all referenced is sexual violence and how increases in sexual violence become more urgent in the face of a global health pandemic. Explain why that is.

MILIBAND: I wouldn’t exactly use the phrase more urgent, I’d use the phrase exacerbated. The International Rescue Committee is a global humanitarian organization. So all around the world, we’re dealing with emergency situations. When the strains of the stresses that arise, when communities break down because of conflict or turn on each other because of conflict, one of the parts of the collateral damage is increased levels of violence against women. And we’ve already seen that. There are statistics from China and from France, even during this COVID crisis, just in the last two months, of rising levels of violence against women in the home, in relatively speaking advanced industrialized countries. In the places where we work, in places where there are a million refugees from Myanmar into Bangladesh, the risks for women and for girls — and I want to underline that because Sheryl’s mentioned it as well. Not just women, girls as well: young girls of 13 and 14 being sold off into marriage; young girls being forced into sex; young girls who are at risk of losing their education. That demands our attention. 

SANDBERG: People in the United States also have to recognize this is happening in our own towns, in our own backyard. The local YWCA — so the YWCA is the main organization around the country which provides shelter and finds homes for people who are trying to get out of abusive situations. They’ve had 16 beds that they’ve basically filled that usually gets them through in my local area in Silicon Valley. In the period since the coronavirus quarantining and sheltering at home began, they had 100 calls from local women who needed shelter from an abuser, from, from an abuser for them and their children. And so this is something we really have to be paying attention to and I think paying a lot more attention to than we are. 

HOOVER: I couldn’t agree more. And I’m so glad this issue has been elevated here on this program. David, your organization, I.R.C., just this week is putting out a report that estimates there will be between 500 million and a billion infections, potentially leading to more than 3 million deaths in 34 conflict affected areas. Put that in perspective for us, because that’s more than twelve times the number of people who have been killed so far.

MILIBAND: So we haven’t just plucked a number out of the air. We’ve taken the technical data from Imperial College London and from the World Health Organization. And we’ve then applied that technical data, the algorithm about the spread of the disease, to the full 34 countries in which the International Rescue Committee works. Places like Somalia, Yemen, Syria, South Sudan, some of the world’s emergency humanitarian hotspots. When you run that data, you see that between 500 million and a billion infections looks likely

Remember the density in places like Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh, where there, are the the million refugees I mentioned, the density there is four to seven times the level of the density in New York. You’ve got 40 to 70,000 people per square kilometer in Cox’s Bazar.And so we are sounding the alarm. It’s not yet on our screens because we’re focused on the home front. But the international danger of this is as potent, if not more so, than the domestic danger. And we’ve got to be able to learn that addressing this crisis at home doesn’t give us an excuse to fail to address it abroad. We’ve got to do both. Or there’ll be, because there’ll be no normal in economic or social life until we achieve that.

HOOVER: Is there a risk, David at overpredicting or ringing the alarm too loud or overprojecting the risk of the global effect of this? 

MILIBAND: Well, of course, I’m hopeful that we’re wrong. I hope that we don’t end up with 500 million to a billion people infected. But when you think about the fact that this is the most virulent disease that the immunologists and the epidemiologists can imagine, when you recognize the density levels, the weakness of the underlying health conditions, my fear, honestly, is that we are underestimating, not overestimating. I hope we’re wrong. Just for the benefit of all your viewers, we’re saying that this is over the lifetime of the disease. We’re not saying that this is within six months. But the truth is that this disease is already more widespread than we realize. And the danger is that it doesn’t get treated properly.

SANDBERG: You know, last summer I went with IRC to visit the Azraq camp with my family in Jordan. And as we’re all thinking about social distancing — and I think most people watching this program think of social distancing as a very different thing. Think about a place where people are so cramped in that there’s no distance between people ever –think about a place where hand-washing, washing your hands, is a total luxury. I think it’s a totally different thing. And I think those numbers– we hope these are too high, but they could be too low.

HOOVER: Of course, one of the things you wrote in your Facebook post at the time was you said, quote, “Women and girls bear the brunt of poverty and are the most vulnerable in crisis.” For refugees, is the COVID crisis a double crisis? 

SANDBERG: Yes. [00:21:20] Absolutely. I met a mother whose teenage kids are working seven days a week, 16 hours a day, to earn the equivalent of 30 U.S. dollars a month to make ends meet. That’s before this crisis. That’s before an economic recession where the people who are the most vulnerable always fare the worst. they were in crisis before this, and this crisis has made all of that worse.

HOOVER: Let me ask you, Sheryl, and then David, I don’t want to be Pollyannaish here, but are there opportunities in this moment? Is there any possibility to seize the crisis and turn it into an opportunity to catalyze the kind of change that you both work for?

SANDBERG: Yes, we have an opportunity not just to survive the crisis, but make things better. And we have to believe it’s possible. And the first step there is information we need to report this data out with a gender lens. We need to be looking at the impact on women and girls specifically so that we can address this. 

HOOVER: David, do you see specific opportunities to seize the crisis for the advancement of women and girls?

MILIBAND: I think we have to vow that this is a 1945 moment, not a 1918 moment. What do I mean by that? After 1945, the great institutions that drove international cooperation, the growth of the middle class, the longest sustained period of peace and prosperity in the western world that we’ve ever known. The contrast is 1918, the end of the First World War. The world fell in on itself. It turned to nationalism. So we have to vow that this is a 1945 moment. And some of the unfinished business of the 1945 settlement is it is actually around health care. The World Health Organization — far from being overfunded, as the president is saying — the World Health Organization needs more funds, more strength, more independence. We need stronger international organizations, notably in health, which can, I think, be a leader if it comes out of this crisis with the right lessons. But we have to speak the truth about those lessons with clarity and with power.

SANDBERG: I think we can also see action from individuals within communities. This is a moment for the government action that David’s talking about, for NGOs to step up, but also for individuals and communities to do that and keep women and girls clearly, clearly at the forefront of this in all of those responses. 

HOOVER: David, many people in an American audience might need to be reminded that you’re a very prominent Labor Party politician. Before you came to the United States, you were the foreign secretary, which is the equivalent of the United States secretary of state. And the current British prime minister, who you know, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has just recovered from COVID 19. And he is now speaking about how serious his plight with the virus was. And he is thanking health care workers for saving his life, which also illustrates the advantage that those of us in the developed world have. Do you care to comment about Boris Johnson’s recovery and this issue of the disparities around the world in terms of developing countries? 

MILIBAND: Well, I think everyone who’s British or everyone, frankly, will be relieved at the prime minister’s recovery. We need people, the heads of government, but frankly, all over the world, to recognize the seriousness of this disease. And Boris Johnson himself has said that he was in some degree of denial about how serious the condition was. As you say, there are countries where the notion of a hospital bed, nevermind a ventilator, is a luxury. Thankfully, Boris Johnson never ended up on the ventilator. He was able to recover with the benefit of extreme oxygen help. And I think there is something in the word you use, disparity. It’s a really important word here, because what is the lesson of this crisis? Not just that we’re a connected world where flights go from Wuhan to New York. The bigger lesson is that the holes in the global safety net are a threat not just to the countries, the people in the countries where there all those holes. But they’re a threat to the global system. 

HOOVER: I want to ask you both about misinformation, because, of course, part of what you say, Sheryl, is you sending out information is making sure we get the right information to people. David, I’ve heard you say that one of your other challenges is dealing with fake news in places where the IRC is active: Bangladesh, Nigeria, Cameroon, Middle East. Can you talk about specific situations that you’ve encountered? 

MILIBAND: Yeah. Fake news is a massive problem because we know that the number one asset in responding to an emergency is trust. There’s no point in having a health clinic, however, well-stocked, if people don’t trust to go into it. And we learnt that lesson very strongly in the Ebola crisis. Now, building trust takes local credible actors, people to spread the right message. We’re fighting against the allegation that this is a conspiracy of foreigners. That I was told today by a colleague in Jordan, if you carry an onion, you won’t get the disease. Some of the fake news is deep conspiracy. Other fake news is laughable. But the truth is it can get halfway around the world before the truth gets its boots on.

HOOVER: Sheryl, I’d like for you to speak about, to what Facebook is doing and why when it comes to false information pertaining to COVID 19. 

SANDBERG: Well, yes, this is the highest focus for us and the highest priority. And I think some of the mistakes in the past, when you look back four and five years, and we didn’t know what misinformation was, the work we’ve done to put systems in place have really served us well. We are in a much better position to handle this than we would have been had this happened many years ago. Right when this virus hit, we knew we wanted to get the right information to people and prevent the wrong information. And as David said, we’ve relied on health authorities, the CDC here, local foreign ministries and health ministries around the world, to get the right information in front of people. When there’s information that they deem can cause imminent harm we’ve taken it down. We’ve tried to take it down as quickly as possible. And we’ve tried to push people to the credible information, the accurate information from health authorities they need. With 3 billion people on our platforms, it’s always going to be an uphill battle, but we believe that more than ever, the right information has to get in front of people. And we’re working hard to make sure that happens.

HOOVER: There is a screenshot of what happens when you’re on Facebook and you get information that Facebook has deemed in concert with the World Health Organization, false information.

SANDBERG: Yeah, we’ve been very aggressive here. Usually on Facebook you see information from the people you’ve connected to. In this case, we’re sending you information we think you should see. When something is marked false we are very aggressively marking it false. And 95 percent of the time, once it’s marked false, people don’t open it and they don’t share it. And so we’re taking this really seriously. It’s kind of all hands on deck to make sure that people are getting the right information and not the wrong information on our services.

MILIBAND: I want to just back up an important point. The appetite for really good information is out there. We’re in a world where there’s more information than ever before, but actually less trust and we’ve got to be able to provide trusted independent information. And that’s absolutely key to this world, awash with information, too much of which is not actually true. 

SANDBERG: You can also use technology. We’ve invested billions and billions of dollars in building systems to combat misinformation. So I think we have a responsibility to put as many resources we can and use the power of technology to get people the answers they want ’cause people want accurate information. 

HOOVER: I have to ask you, against that backdrop, there is something you said on March 19, you said about COVID-19’s misinformation spread, quote, “There are no exceptions for politicians. There are no exceptions for anyone. If you tell everyone to go drink bleach, and it’s going to cure this, it comes down.” As we know, only a few weeks later, the president of the United States mused about whether injecting disinfectant might actually fight or cure the virus. Videos and transcripts of that are still on Facebook. So how do you square what I know is Facebook’s position about free speech when it comes to politicians, with politicians spreading misinformation about COVID-19? 

SANDBERG: So we’re very clear, if you spread misinformation that the CDC or health ministries deem to be imminently harmful, we will take it down. If there were actual videos saying please go drink bleach right now, those come down. And we are relying on health ministries to make those determinations, but there are no exceptions. If anyone is encouraging people to do things like that, that will come down.

HOOVER: So you just, did you guys just made the determination that that was a musing, not a recommendation. And so it didn’t cross the line.

SANDBERG: We are not making those determinations because we can’t be arbiters of the truth. We’re not health officials. We are relying on health officials, everyone from the CDC to the W.H.O., to local health ministries, to make those determinations. 

HOOVER: And the World Health Organization and the CDC did come out and say that consuming bleach or any sort of disinfectant would be a harmful act and is, not only not recommended, that people should not do it. 

SANDBERG: Correct. And we’ve made sure people got that information, do not do this. And when people have encouraged and said, please go drink that, that has come down. And will continue to, no matter who says it. 

HOOVER: OK. I’d like to move on to data privacy. David, you wrote: “The danger is that the need to centralize information and the control of the disease either becomes the thin edge of the wedge in the restriction of personal liberty and/or produces a revolt that undermines the fight against the disease.” You’re here in the United States where there is a question about how we balance the need to do contact tracing and monitoring, monitoring work, which is part of fighting COVID-19, with protecting individual freedom and privacy. How do we balance those two?

MILIBAND: Well the big picture here is that in the wrong hands, the lessons of the crisis lead to less free societies, a less connected world, and a less equal world. The global picture is one where the struggle between autocracy and free societies is being slanted in the wrong direction at the moment. My reflection on the US situation though, gives me one important cause of hope, and I think it addresses your question directly. I’ve been very struck how the independent state health commissioners have come into their own as trusted parties in this. In Ohio, in Massachusetts, in New York. Not just the governors, but the independent health authorities. and I think there’s a real lesson in the way in which the independent trusted expertise at state level has come into its own, uncontaminated by the partisanship of the dysfunctionalism of the federal level. And in your system, federal politics has a particular dysfunction about it. But what’s remarkable to me, as someone who’s lucky enough to live and work in America, is that the seeds of democratic government at state level are still very strong.

SANDBERG: I have an example. You know, data is really important here in slowing the spread of the disease and helping authorities plan. And there are many ways it can be done in a very privacy protective way. So we launched just a bit ago ‘symptom maps’, where we are — in partnership with an academic institution — asking people on Facebook, ‘Do you want to take an anonymous survey?’ We are not getting the data, the academic institution is and asking people, ‘are you having symptoms?’ And then we are doing aggregate mapping of here’s where symptoms. And it is mapping very closely to where these outbreaks are happening. That kind of data protects people’s privacy. Totally anonymous. But it’s going to help local health officials plan for where we need hospital vents, where we need ventilators, where different shelter-in-place rules might want to happen. So I think with a very privacy protective lens on, there are ways of getting individuals to share information in ways that will protect their health and other peoples’. And we’re working hard on those, too.

HOOVER: You all have written this op ed together. Will you continue to work together to combat the crisis and to help women and girls?

MILIBAND: Yeah, definitely. I mean, look, Sheryl’s being very modest. She’s made a very generous donation to the International Rescue Committee. I think that the voice that she’s bringing to this is really powerful and positive. The passion, you can tell that she’s got to this. And I also think that there is room for NGOs and the corporate sector to use this period for real redesign. You help us think through how we don’t go back to normal. I hate that phrase when we go back to life as it was. For the people that we serve, we don’t want to go back. We actually want to leave behind the kind of holes in the safety net they’ve got. And we want to partner with those who know things that we don’t to make things much better for the people that we serve.

SANDBERG: In the midst of all this crisis and hardship and unprecedented levels of disease and death and economic despair, we do see these unbelievable stories of people coming together. And I think that’s what gives all of us hope for a better future.

HOOVER:  Sheryl Sandberg and David Miliband, thank you very much for coming to Firing Line, sharing your views and engaging in this important topic.

SANDBERG: Thank you for your — thank you for caring about this topic. Really means a lot.

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