It’s my second week of social distancing. And to be honest, without my daily 3-hour round-trip commute, I’m feeling better rested and less stressed.
But my wellbeing apart, what’s really going on with the coronavirus crisis? What does it tell us about global health priorities? And what needs to change?
The World Health Organization has labelled the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic. In response, governments have had to pour cash into their health systems and economies. Their populations are in lockdown.
But I’m struck by a discrepancy here.
What makes COVID-19 so deadly is that it can lead to severe pneumonia. Yet last year, nearly 800,000 children died of pneumonia globally and nobody labelled it a pandemic – though Save the Children and partners have been calling for decision-makers to do so.
It’s overwhelmingly in poorer countries that children die from pneumonia. Most of those deaths are due to lack of access to food, medicines and basic health care. Childhood pneumonia is a disease of poverty.
An illness which is endemic, and which can be prevented through vaccines and treated early in most cases at very low cost, childhood pneumonia has just not been tackled by the global community or governments.
In the poorest communities, where the vast majority of child deaths from pneumonia occur, parents and children often walk miles to get drinking water or access basic health facilities. And when they get to a clinic, they may find stockouts of vaccines, basic commodities such as antibiotics or medical oxygen – needed to treat severe pneumonia. Healthcare systems are so lacking, there may not even be a health worker.
It’s a jarring contrast with recent images of the COVID-19 crisis, showing no shortage of running water for people to wash their hands or food and supplies being dropped by helicopter to people on cruise ships.
But there are similarities here too. As we’re witnessing, in a pandemic, health workers – no matter where they work – are stretched beyond capacity, are most at risk from life-threatening disease, and are badly paid and supported. Health facilities struggle to cope. Basic commodities are in short supply. Those who most need testing don’t get it.
And for poorer countries, with weak health systems and fragile economies, the threat of COVID-19 is potentially even more devastating.
That’s why it’s critical that the international community urgently comes together to moblise and utilise resources to fight the pandemic – as with the Ebola response in 2014.
In crisis, there’s opportunity. As well as saving lives right away, any new funding will have the potential to pave the way to stronger health systems in some of the poorest countries.
Right now people across all walks of life are pulling together as communities to support the most vulnerable – to do their shopping, run errands, walk their dogs, check people don’t feel isolated. The development sector has a lot to learn from these simple acts of kindness and love, which are aimed at rectifying the injustice of lack of access and exclusion.
Once COVID-19 dies down, the world must take a deep breath and think about how as a global community we can share wealth and resources in a systematic way to support poorer countries to build stronger health systems.
And ensure that all of us are equally prepared and protected to challenge the next pandemic.