Two Years into COVID Pandemic, 92 % of Countries Still Face Significant Health Service Disruptions
Healthcare workers in Nigeria have struggled to maintain routine childhood vaccination services during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Two years after the COVID-19 pandemic began, over ninety percent of countries continue to face ongoing disruptions to their health systems, according to a survey published Monday evening by the World Health Organization.

The WHO Global Pulse Survey, the third of its kind since the start of the COVID-19 crisis, analysed responses from 129 countries, territories and areas on the continuity of essential health services in the latter part of 2021.  The aim, WHO said, is to gain insights into the impact of the pandemic on these services and related changes that countries could be facing. 

At the end of the year, disruptions were occuring across practically every sector of health services – and at roughly the same rates as the first quarter of 2021, when vaccines were not yet widely available, found the survey, which covered both high, middle and lower income countries.

“Findings from this latest survey, conducted at the end of 2021, suggest that health systems in all regions and in countries of all income levels continue to be severely impacted, with little to no improvement since early 2021, when the previous survey was conducted,” stated a WHO press statement.

Strikingly, health workforce issues were found to be the biggest barrier to scaling up access to COVID-19 testing, treatment and vaccination. WHO said this is likely a result of staff exhaustion, workforce infections, and health workers leaving their jobs due to the stress of the pandemic.

More than a third (35%) of countries reported health workforce challenges more broadly beyond the bottlenecks in COVID-related healthcare services.

Disruptions across all major areas of healthcare services

In terms of other challenges, countries reported disruptions across all major health areas: sexual, reproductive, maternal, newborn, child and adolescent health, immunization, nutrition, cancer care, mental, neurological and substance use disorders, HIV, hepatitis, TB, malaria, neglected tropical diseases and care for older people. 

Moreover, at the same time that countries were scaling up their administration of COVID-19 vaccines, they reported increased disruptions in routine immunization services.

More than half of the countries responding to the survey said that many people are still unable to access care at the primary care and community care levels.

Elective surgeries were also disrupted in 59% of countries, which WHO said could have accumulating and long-term impact on personal health and well-being. 

Nearly one-third (32%) reported challenges accessing emergency room services.

Some 66 core health services across multiple delivery platforms and health areas were included in the survey.

Plans for recovery

At the same time, countries have tried to further beef up their responses to adapt and rebound from the continuing crisis, including with the provision of more home care and telemedicine; stepped up healthworker recruitment and training; procurement of “surge commodities” and more public financial support for the delivery of certain services, such as COVID testing or vaccination, to ensure wider uptake.

One-half of countries surveyed have developed a health service recovery plan to prepare for future health emergencies, and 70% of countries having allocated additional government funding to health workforce strengthening; access to medicines and other health products; digital health; facility infrastructure; and public engagement and communications.

As the survey responses were gathered up to November 2021, the data does not reflect the complex impacts on health services of the Omicron wave – which hit in late November.  That wave has infected unprecedented numbers of people in most countries around the world, including large numbers of healthcare workers.  At the same time, hospitalization rates have been proportionately lower than past COVID waves.  That allowed some countries to refocus efforts on other emergency and routine hospital procedures – although hospital capacity in other countries has been strained by surges in moderately and seriously ill COVID patients.   

The full report can be found here.

Image Credits: Twitter: @WHOAFRO.

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