By Patricia Scotland
Today there is an eerie silence across the globe. Bustling cities have gone quiet and highways that were once jammed with bumper to bumper traffic, are empty. In homes, thousands of families are anxiously awaiting a phone call from a hospital about their loved ones. Many have already received the devastating news that their mother, father, child, spouse, sibling or friend has died from coronavirus complications – often without the comfort of someone familiar to hold their hands.
And in the very trenches of the war against this new disease that changed our world with astonishing speed, are nurses, doctors and other hospital staff. Every day they put on their uniforms and turn up to the frontline to battle, with or without the armour of Personal Protective Equipment.
COVID-19 has touched every nook and cranny of our globe. Big and small, developed and developing have seen their economies grind to a halt; businesses buckling under the strain of lockdowns; toilet paper, hand sanitiser and pasta becoming rare and precious items; schools closing and major sporting events being cancelled. And, of course, it has exposed serious gaps in health services and systems.
But, even as we wake every day to this frightening and sometimes surreal experience, it is encouraging and comforting to hear The Head of the Commonwealth, Queen Elizabeth II, declare, on Sunday, that “we will succeed” in the fight against this global crisis.
So, on this World Health Day that has been, rightly set aside to celebrate the contributions of nurses and midwives, it is important that we take the opportunity to re-evaluate the status quo and the current models that support our daily lives; and begin to assess the lessons that are already emerging from this catastrophe.
What we have already witnessed, for example, is that healthcare systems that are more equitable, providing access to basic healthcare to all individuals and communities without them experiencing financial hardship, are more equipped to respond to the pandemic. These countries that provide healthcare to all, known as Universal Health Coverage, have been more successful in providing testing and treatment during the pandemic.
This particular lesson has been a top agenda item for Commonwealth health ministers at their annual summits for the last four years. Their meetings have critically assessed various strategies to help countries achieve Universal Health Coverage. It is now undoubtedly clear that addressing human resources for health shortages and financing sustainable healthcare systems that cater to the needs of those in poverty and the most marginalised in any society, is critical if we are to win the fight against COVID-19 and be ready for any future outbreaks.
Another challenge that this pandemic has exposed is the acute shortage of essential health supplies, drugs, equipment and tests. Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, the Commonwealth had developed strategies to help countries to pool procurement of essential medicines. This was presented at the 2019 Health Ministers Meeting chaired by Fiji. And since the outbreak of COVID-19, we have been exploring how we can tailor approaches such as a price sharing and pooled procurement platform to provide important information on these essential health supplies, drugs, tests and equipment necessary to combat the pandemic across the Commonwealth.
There is no doubt that this pandemic is affecting us all – its impact leaking into every aspect of our life. Both physical and mental health is on the line, as people lose their way of life, their livelihoods and their loved ones. Many of us will feel the long-term effects of poor nutrition, decline in fitness and the disruption of human relationships. But COVID-19 does not affect us equally. There is certainly a disproportionate impact, for example, on households that depend on daily paid labour and people at risk of domestic abuse. So, governments stand before a goliath challenge that requires a coordinated response involving all sectors.
But I again return to the wisdom of The Head of the Commonwealth, Queen Elizabeth II, that “better days will return”. If we work together, share resources and equipment and follow advice of governments and the World Health Organisations, we will, eventually, be able to wake up our cities, return to work, school and leisure, to meet and chat, or to hug each other.
But it is important that we never go back to the business-as-usual that we knew before coronavirus. We must use the opportunity to learn from this outbreak and decide, not only how we could have more resilient, connected and accessible healthcare systems, but also how we could address connected issues such as climate change and access to quality education for all.
*Patricia Scotland is the Commonwealth Secretary-General