A school captain provides comfort to a student receiving a COVID-19 shot in Bhutan.
Photo: UNDP/Kinley Wangmo.

Weak global medical care has exacerbated the pandemic, hurting human development

It has now been more than two years since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a public health emergency, and the pandemic continues to disrupt much of the world.

Though modern science has delivered many of the tools needed to fight the virus, a lack of equitable access leaves the world at risk of new variants, meaning that we are still far from the end of this pandemic.

But beyond case counts, variants and interruptions to daily life, COVID-19 has exposed the deep inequities and weaknesses in our health systems. The result is mounting pressure that is eroding trust and the security of communities and endangering the health of millions globally, in a world where an estimated six out of seven people already felt insecure prior to the pandemic.

A new report from the United Nations Development Program acknowledges the critical link between health and human security, highlighting that strong health systems are essential to protecting individuals against potential threats to human security. Immediate scaled-up investments in health systems must be a global priority to shore up an equitable pandemic response, address other health challenges and improve preparedness and resilience against future pandemics.

With large and widening gaps in health care systems between countries, the consequences of continued inaction, particularly for low- and middle-income countries (LMICs), are confronting us every day. According to the report, between 1995 and 2017, the gap in health care performance between countries with low and very high human development grew by more than 10%.

Fragile and overstretched health systems in many LMICs have had to respond to the pandemic by diverting resources away from, or fully pausing, existing disease programs and essential health services. Rates of routine vaccinations among children, for example, have dropped to the lowest levels since 2009, with an estimated 23 million children under the age of one missing basic vaccinations. Decades-long fights against diseases such as HIV, tuberculosis, polio and measles have also been disrupted, with data compiled by the World Health Organization showing that TB deaths increased for the first time since 2005.

Inequitable access to lifesaving medicines and health technologies has further contributed to LMICs’ vulnerability, as rich countries have administered boosters while many low-income countries are still struggling to deliver first doses of COVID-19 vaccines. Even when countries do receive vaccine doses, they often lack the support needed to quickly deploy them.

The fallout from weak health systems has led to the pandemic affecting not just health, but human development overall. A 2021 report from the United Nations found that COVID-19 reversed 15-years of progress on global education, health and poverty. Approximately 1.6 billion informal workers faced a 60% decrease in their earnings in 2020, contributing to the first increase in global poverty since 1998.

Despite the setbacks brought on by COVID-19, there are clear actions we can take to remedy the structural weaknesses of health care systems and protect human security. Advancing universal health coverage, for example, will ensure access to health care for all, improve the ability to deliver essential health services and strengthen disease surveillance and risk communication. Now is the time to invest in health system strengthening and multisectoral pandemic preparedness initiatives so that all countries are equipped to quickly detect outbreaks and prevent them from turning into pandemics.

The Access and Delivery Partnership (ADP) and the Global Health Innovative Technology Fund (GHIT), led by the United Nations Development Program and the Government of Japan, are two examples of such initiatives. These partnerships have worked across sectors and countries to support the pandemic response in LMICs while mitigating the impact on existing health challenges such as tuberculosis, malaria and neglected tropical diseases. ADP has also helped facilitate South-South learning, while Uniting Efforts, a collaborative platform established by the Government of Japan, ADP and GHIT, has worked to make equitable access part of research and development.

These kinds of collaborations are critical to protecting against future threats, because COVID-19 will not be the last pandemic we face.

Human health is closely tied to the health of the climate — and the climate crisis, with its impacts on infectious diseases and health, is one of the greatest challenges we face to human security. By investing now in strong health systems, we are investing in the long-term security of individuals and communities for decades to come.

By delivering on our global commitments and investing in systems that leave no one behind, we can achieve global resilience, ensure that billions are protected from want and fear, as we build towards a greener, safer and better future for this generation and the next.

Achim Steiner is administrator of the United Nations Development Program and Keizo Takemi is a member of Japan’s Upper House.

This article was originally published on http://www.japantimes.co.jp