New Delhi | October 18: Strong health systems can better respond to health emergencies and health is fundamental to economic security. This has been amply demonstrated by the recent COVID-19 pandemic. With a high risk of countries reducing investments in health to pre-COVID-19 levels, the World Health Organization has asked countries to recognize the importance of investing in health, particularly in primary healthcare.
“There is no economic security without health security. Health and well-being for all, universal health coverage, and pandemic preparedness have complementary roles. Investments in primary healthcare-oriented systems are the most efficient and equitable approach to achieving these goals,” said Dr. Poonam Khetrapal Singh, Regional Director, WHO South-East Asia Region who was speaking at the World Health Summit.
Since 2014, the South-East Asia Region has prioritized health workforce strengthening as a part of Regional Flagship Priority Programs. The availability of doctors, nurses, and midwives has increased by over 30% during this period which played a crucial role in the COVID-19 pandemic response.
It is well established that countries with sustained investments in primary health care – with communities at the center – were able to identify cases and mount an effective public health response to the pandemic more quickly.
“The COVID-19 pandemic was a wake-up call that was long anticipated by the global community. Yet the world was unprepared to deal with a pandemic of this scale. Preparedness is the key. We need to fill the gaps in the delivery of health services and health coverage,” said the Regional Director.
To address gaps and prepare for the next pandemic, the Regional Director stressed on investments and strengthening the six pillars of health systems; service delivery, health workforce, access to medical products, vaccines and technologies, health information systems, and financing backed by political commitment at the highest levels.
Health care needs of all countries are expected to increase in the future due to the underlying changes in population growth, increased life expectancies, and increasing burden of noncommunicable diseases and injuries.
Economic hardships on account of COVID-19, the current geopolitical crisis, and inflationary pressures have hampered recovery with decades of progress in health service delivery and poverty reduction stalled or reversed. The majority of the 71 million pushed into extreme poverty by the end of 2020 reside in the Region.
With history bearing testimony to the increase in frequency, diversity and scale of epidemics, the COVID-19 pandemic has shown that decades of investments in expanding the health workforce and primary health care oriented health systems served as the foundation for countries to rapidly mount public health actions while maintaining essential health services with minimal disruption and allowing for countries to recover faster.
“The cost of inaction is far greater than action”, said Dr Khetrapal Singh adding, “There is strong and growing evidence that health investment is a smart investment, which pays off by boosting economic performance and stability.”
The Regional Director highlighted the importance of adopting and leveraging technology in health services and pandemic response. Sri Lanka’s Health Information System was the first globally to be adapted to facilitate real-time COVID-19 surveillance and India’s COWIN platform facilitated the delivery of vaccines to over one billion people.
“The pandemic demonstrated how interconnected the world is and how quickly a virus can transmit from one country to another. A country with a weaker health system poses a threat to health and prosperity everywhere. Now more than ever, we must ensure that adequately financed and quality health services are extended to all,” said Dr. Poonam Khetrapal Singh.
Public Information and Advocacy Officer
WHO South-East Asia Regional Office