By Nheissa Isidor, Public Health Analyst I
The COVID-19 pandemic exposed underlying vulnerabilities in countries’ ability to respond to public health emergencies while sustaining support for other population health issues. The pandemic also exacerbated persistent systemic and structural inequalities in global health, specifically related to poverty, access to healthcare, race, ethnicity, and gender. Moreover, these underlying issues encompass deep societal and health problems that have been neglected for years.
The World Health Organization (WHO) reported that interventions for neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) are among the most frequently and most severely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic across all essential health services. According to a recent survey in 2021, approximately 48 out of 109 countries (44%) experienced disruptions in NTDs-related healthcare services and delivery to reduce transmission. Drastic and fatal health consequences may result from these disruptions, including an increased mortality and morbidity burden of affected communities and a reduction in the collection, analysis, and utilization of epidemiological data for planning purposes.
The pandemic also has disrupted global vaccination campaigns, with official data from the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the WHO showing the largest continuous fall in children’s immunizations in almost 30 years. Unfortunately, the estimated cases of outbreaks will continue to increase as the pandemic continues to disrupt surveillance systems globally.
These ongoing challenges emphasize the importance of identifying and advocating for other population health issues overshadowed by the COVID-19 pandemic. The global health infrastructure requires a comprehensive long-term strategy for holistic, equitable, and sustainable change. This sustainable comprehensive strategy will require a fundamental shift to prioritizing the long-term health and well-being of the global population as a whole by deploying the three strategies listed below to ensure that communication and resources are maintained for other population health issues.
Ensuring Greater Investment for Public Health
A lack of financing in the public health sector has been a long-standing barrier to strengthening the infrastructure of health systems around the world. Despite heightened mobilization following the 2014 Ebola outbreak, there has not been enough investment in pandemic preparedness and response. To shift into a more sufficient global architecture, financing for health must transition from providing targeted assistance for a few specific communicable
diseases to providing more comprehensive resources to avoid preventable chronic illnesses and addressing the issue of universal health coverage. For instance, as development finance providers fund programs to combat COVID-19, their prioritization should also be on advancing ongoing development initiatives such as providing water, sanitation, & hygiene (WASH) facilities, investing in urban infrastructure and innovations for climate change, and more. With sufficient financial investments to strengthen the global health infrastructure worldwide, countries can allocate vital resources to not only respond but to prevent global health emergencies and population health issues.
Advocating for Policy Reform
Policy is an important tool in public health to enhance the socioeconomic determinants of health on a systemic level. Ensuring that all policies outside of healthcare (such as social security, housing, transport, energy, and employment) follow a “health in all policies” approach is crucial in reducing health inequities and promoting population health. Through this approach, public health professionals will collaborate with policymakers from public, private, and third-sector institutions to shape policies that address broader societal issues at local, state, national, or international levels, depending on the issue. Additionally, the healthcare system needs radical reform and an efficient and diverse workforce to provide equitable levels of care, particularly for marginalized groups disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.
Raising Awareness through Health Communication Strategies
Raising awareness about prevention and care using health communication strategies is essential in addressing the lack of communication on population health challenges. It is imperative to educate the public how COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted certain population groups through the unequal distribution of illness, morbidity, mortality, and resources, such as access to vaccines. Those crucial conversations should be led by people who are trusted, respected, and identify with the affected populations. Communities will need access to this data to understand the equity gaps before, during, and after the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the pandemic has further strained ties between communities and healthcare institutions, where trust has been lacking or insufficient.
To gain support and increase community collaboration, a successful public awareness campaign using community health workers can help rebuild communal trust in healthcare and help reach vulnerable populations for data collection, community assessments, and resource allocation. Furthermore, through the strategic use of media advocacy, communication on other population issues can reach policymakers or even the general population in the least amount of time.
The Impact Now and In the Future
Greater public health investments, healthcare reform, and public awareness are the three main driving forces for effective population health management and sustainable healthcare delivery during and post-COVID-19 era. Ironically, countries can use the COVID-19 pandemic as an opportunity to ensure greater financial investment and reinvigoration of their health systems to improve access and quality of care for all population health issues. For instance, leveraging technology should remain a great asset to expand the reach of healthcare and health promotion through services such as telemedicine, virtual program delivery, and mobile device applications. The availability of at-home testing kits and screening devices also helped expand access to free or affordable health monitoring services. Ultimately, these innovative approaches from the COVID-19 pandemic, which improved access to and convenience of health services, can also be beneficial in preventing population health issues in the future.