To Defeat COVID-19, Protect Progress Against HIV, TB and Malaria, and Save Lives, We Must Unite to Fight

COVID-19 struck and disrupted health, school, businesses, travel, play, prayer, and livelihoods. We have had to make decisions that affect our health in a way only seen and done in health facilities. While going out to the shop, we have to wear a mask, sanitize our hands and ensure the body temperature is right. COVID-19 has reminded us basic facts – that we must first secure our health to be able to deal with other facets of our lives. Public health is a pre-requisite to social, economic and political stability. That leads me to emphasizing that investing in population-based services for preventing, detecting and responding to disease is needed for development.

Governments must then increase investments in health.

When countries were put in lock down, access to healthcare services dwindled. People were afraid of going to health facilities when they fell ill for fear of having COVID-19. Stigma. There was fear of catching COVID-19 at the health facility. This has resulted in the possibility of increased incidence of other diseases such as HIV, TB and malaria presenting fresh and unprecedented health challenges.

HIV, TB and malaria services were largely disrupted during the lockdown. A modelling report by the Stop TB Partnership indicates that as a result, global TB incidence and deaths in 2021 would increase to levels last seen in between 2013 and 2016 respectively – implying a setback of at least 5 to 8 years in the fight against TB, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. A report by UNAIDS posits that the HIV response could be set back further, by 10 years or more, where COVID-19 has caused severe disruptions. Malaria prevention programmes were interrupted such as in delayed distribution of mosquito nets. 

Schools have been closed for months and gladly, they are gradually re-opening. For out-of-school girls, this can mean greater risk of sexual exploitation, early pregnancy, forced marriage and HIV infection. The longer a girl is out of school, the less likely that she will return. The level of risk is enormous.

Countries must then focus on how best to accelerate the restoration of services, to bring the disease burden under control.

Measures to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on HIV, TB and malaria should involve a combination of intensive community engagement and maintaining awareness of the importance of services to defeat the three diseases while emerging from the COVID-19 response. Programs must identify and address gender inequalities in their design and response. One approach is to meaningfully engage women, supporting primary healthcare services needed to reduce child and maternal mortality; and supporting caregivers, who are mostly women, caring for those who fall ill from COVID-19 or other causes. Gender barriers to health must be removed.

Further, as we tackle COVID-19, health advocates, partners and governments must ensure that the response to COVID-19 includes strategies and lessons learned from the fight against HIV, TB and malaria and resources are allocated towards this. Human rights must be protected; stigma and discrimination must be addressed. The available COVID-19 resources must ensure equitable access to screening, testing and treatment. When treatment and a vaccine is found, it should be available to everyone, one everywhere for free. So that no one is left behind.

This calls for a solid global collaboration to accelerate the development, production and equitable access to new COVID-19 technologies.

Lastly, COVID-19 will not be the last pandemic. The next pandemic must find us better prepared, ready with strong and resilient health systems with a strong focus on primary healthcare founded on strong community health systems. A rights-based, equitable, people-centered system that is conscious of other factors that affect health and wellbeing such as climate change, food and housing.

To achieve these successes, Governments must invest additional domestic resources for health to build back better for a healthier and safer future. Governments must consider health as an investment in human capital in the realization that health is a key factor to the development of our country.

We unite to fight and the beat continues for efficient, effective and affordable healthcare for everyone, everywhere.

Author ~ Cecilia Senoo

Founder and Executive Director, HFFG