Health and Healthcare Systems

COVID-19 reveals gaps in health systems: WHO Briefing

Director-General of the WHO Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, attends a news conference on the coronavirus (COVID-2019) in Geneva, Switzerland February 24, 2020.

Director-General of the WHO Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus Image: REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

Linda Lacina
Digital Editor, World Economic Forum
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  • The World Health Organization held a media briefing on 6 May to update the public on the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.
  • Major gaps in public health investment are undermining health and welfare around the globe, officials said.
  • Public health gaps are putting global security and economic development at risk and will need to be addressed in the long term.

As countries steel themselves against future health crises, they should not ignore basic investments in their health systems.

The coronavirus crisis has revealed the importance of national and sub-national health systems, World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said at a briefing Wednesday in Geneva. Together, these systems comprise “the foundation of global health security”.

Top WHO officials have frequently stressed that fighting COVID-19 requires a comprehensive approach, including health systems stocked with adequate equipment and trained staff. Strong health systems are one of six elements - along with contact tracing and testing - that WHO officials have identified as essential for managing the virus' spread regardless of its transmission phase.

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Resilient health systems are also essential beyond the coronavirus crisis, said the Director-General: “Strong and resilient health systems are the best defence not only against outbreaks and pandemics, but also against the multiple health threats that people around the world face every day."

According to one estimate from the UN, more than 5 billion people will lack access to essential health services by 2030. Those services include the ability to see a health worker, access to essential medicines and running water in hospitals.

This access is complicated by a shortage of trained healthcare workers. The 2020 State of the World's Nursing report found that the world would need 6 million more nurses by 2030 to reach global health targets. Shortages of health care workers are felt most acutely in low- and middle-income countries.

We need more nurses, finds the World Health Organization's new report.
We need more nurses, finds the World Health Organization's new report. Image: State of the World’s Nursing, 2020

This year will bring additional challenges, as the efforts to find a vaccine for COVID-19 disrupt existing vaccination programs. For instance, according to one worst-case estimate, malaria deaths in Sub-Saharan Africa could double, given the suspension of insecticide-treated net campaigns and blocked access to antimalarial medicine.

How health service disruptions caused by COVID-19 could impact malaria deaths.
How health service disruptions caused by COVID-19 could impact malaria deaths. Image: WHO

The world currently spends approximately $7.5 trillion on health each year, or 10% of global gross domestic product (GDP). While spending has increased steadily, dangerous public health gaps exist, especially in rural or conflict-ridden areas where access is difficult and infrastructure is lacking.

According to the UN study “Primary Health Care on the Road to Universal Health Coverage,” increasing spending on primary health care in just low- and middle-income countries by $200 billion annually could save 60 million lives.

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Health gaps can have a range of consequences, the WHO's top official explained: “Gaps like these don’t just undermine the health of individuals, families and communities. They also put global security and economic development at risk."

“Prevention is not only better than cure,” said the Director General, “it’s cheaper, and the smartest thing to do."

He added: "The COVID-19 pandemic will eventually recede, but there can be no going back to business as usual."

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