By Chioma Okafor, Global Technical Assistance Team Lead
The COVID-19 pandemic evoked a global response that required clear actions to end the acute phase of the crisis. These actions entailed ensuring resilient and well-resourced systems were in place to mitigate the spread of the virus. However, the pandemic also caused the neglect of other routine health services, with researchers finding that 48% of routine health care was deferred in the United States, with this delay in care negatively impacting quality of life, morbidity, and mortality, as well as causing unforeseen consequences in the coming years.
Prior to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, significant progress had been made globally on key health indicators, including increased life expectancy, maternal and child mortality, and non-communicable diseases (NCDs). However, it is important to note that AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria remain a high priority on the global sustainable development goals agenda, along with tobacco-related illness and road traffic incidents. The 2022 Sustainable Development Goals Report indicates that the additional confluence of climate change and conflicts is also contributing to food and nutrition deficiencies as well as negatively impacting global peace and security. This clearly indicates the need for continuous efforts to maintain and provide essential health services despite the demands of a pandemic.
We also know that the COVID-19 global response exposed inherent weaknesses in our ability to prepare for and respond to emergencies, with health systems around the world grossly overwhelmed by the demands of the pandemic. It also amplified long-standing systemic and structural global health inequities—particularly in poverty, access to health care, race, ethnicity, and gender. Despite these monumental challenges, it is integral that the global health and development community continues to ensure that other health challenges are not overshadowed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
One such challenge is routine childhood immunization. In 2020, more than 22 million infants missed their first dose of measles vaccine, 3 million more than in 2019, and the largest increase in two decades, with serious implications for the occurrence of future outbreaks. This is evident in the more than 13,000 cases of measles that were recorded in the Democratic Republic of Congo in early 2021. However, most donor funding and resources were mobilized to support more high-profile diseases like Ebola and COVID-19.
The pandemic also disrupted mental health services globally, with 93% of countries reporting an urgent need for increased investments in mental health care. In the United States, we also saw record-high rates of sexually-transmitted infections (STIs) and an epidemic of drug overdoses, with local health departments instructed to pull staff working on HIV, STIs, viral hepatitis, and harm reduction to support the COVID-19 response, causing the suspension and reduction of services for these critical public health issues.
As the pandemic required lockdowns, curfews, and other restrictions as necessary preventative health measures that can save millions of lives, the United Nations also reported an increase in all types of violence against women and girls as the pandemic put a strain on available health services and domestic violence shelters.
Therefore, how can we ensure communication and resources are maintained for other population health issues? How can countries use COVID-19 as an opportunity to ensure greater financial investment and reinvigoration of their health systems in order to improve access and quality of care for all population health issues? In the second part of this blog, I will address these questions as well as how to communicate other pressing population health issues in a way that demonstrates impact.