COVID-19 continues to disrupt essential health services in 90% of countries, finds the World Health Organization

Some signs of recovery seen but a concerted effort is required to restore and strengthen health services

A 2nd survey by the World Health Organization (WHO) showed that one year into the COVID-19 pandemic, there are still significant disruptions to healthcare services, as reported by 90% of countries indicating they experienced one or more disruptions to essential health services. This highlights that there has been no substantial global change since the first survey was conducted in the summer of 2020.

However, on a smaller scale, the magnitude and extent of disruptions within individual countries has generally decreased. In 2020, countries reported that, on average, about half of essential health services were disrupted. In the first 3 months of 2021, however, they reported progress, with just over one third of services now being disrupted.

This survey was conducted across 216 countries and territories across the six WHO regions and examined 63 core health services across delivery platforms and health areas between October 2020 and February 2021. The purpose of the survey was to gain insights and perspectives on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on essential health services and how countries are adapting strategies to maintain essential services.

Countries have been working to mitigate disruptions, be it through regular communication with the public, recruitment of additional staff to increase the health workforce, shifting patients to alternative healthcare facilities or exploring telehealth options.

In addition, WHO and its partners have been helping countries to adapt their processes so they can better respond to the challenges being placed on their health systems; strengthen primary health care, and advance universal health coverage.

“It is encouraging to see that countries are beginning to build back their essential health services, but much remains to be done,” says Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director General, WHO. “The survey highlights the need to intensify efforts and take additional steps to close gaps and strengthen services. It will be especially important to monitor the situation in countries that were struggling to provide health services before the pandemic.”

Countries still have to make important decisions when responding to COVID-19 that may negatively affect access to care for other health issues. These include supply chain disruptions which would adversely impact availability of essential medicines, diagnostics, and the PPE, temporary closures of healthcare facilities, and patients not seeking care due to community mistrust and fears of becoming infected and financial challenges.

As a result, millions of people are still missing out on vital health care. In terms of services, the biggest impact reported by nearly half of countries is on provision of day-to-day primary care to prevent and manage some of the most common health problems. Long-term care for chronic conditions, rehabilitation, and palliative end-of-life care, is also still badly disrupted – severely affecting older people and people living with disabilities.

WHO will continue to support countries so they can respond to increased strains on health systems and rapidly evolving priorities and needs throughout the course of the pandemic, and to ensure that COVID-19 control strategies are in balance strategies to tackle other health priorities and secure continued access to comprehensive care for everyone, including the most vulnerable.

Key support mechanisms include the ACT-Accelerator, which works to speed up equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines, tests and treatments, and the Strategic Preparedness and Response Plan, which guides actions taken at national, regional, and global levels to tackle COVID-19.

In addition to these strategy, the WHO is also continuing with the work it started earlier. These include the “Boost initiative” and the UHC Partnership, which covers 115 countries, which has strengthened the organization’s capacity to provide additional support to countries so they can maintain essential health services during the pandemic, and advance progress towards universal health coverage.

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