Regional governments, particularly in Latin America and the Caribbean, are being urged to heighten sustained investments in health to up to six per cent of gross domestic product (GDP), to effectively tackle the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, including the resulting social and economic fallouts.
Director of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), Dr. Carissa Etienne, and Executive Secretary for the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), Alicia Bárcena, underscored this imperative during Thursday’s (October 14) digital press conference to present the entities’ joint COVID-19 report – ‘The Prolonged Health Crisis and its Impact on Health, the Economy and Social Development’.
Their call comes against the background of the Americas recording more than 91.7 million COVID-19 cases, or 39 per cent of the global count, and 2.3 million deaths, representing 46.3 per cent of the worldwide total, as of October 13.
Dr. Etienne, who described the region as the pandemic’s epicentre, said the health, economic and social consequences of the prolonged pandemic are “enormous”, and require increased investments “not only in health but several [other] areas”.
She cited data showing that a significant number of regional countries are experiencing severe financial limitations, with public expenditure in health averaging four per cent of GDP.
This level of spending, the Director pointed out, is well below the six per cent agreed on by both organisations in 2014, in keeping with PAHO’s Regional Strategy for Universal Access to Health and Universal Health Coverage, while noting that countries’ COVID-19 vaccination plans have averaged 7.5 per cent of public expenditure.
Dr. Etienne acknowledged that health sector investments, largely by State funding, is “especially challenging”, given the low economic growth and decreasing public revenues being experienced by multiple countries.
“Most countries have already made substantial efforts to reinforce expenditures in health within their public budgets and to increase allocations for vaccinations. They have also worked to increase health services’ capacities to manage cases of COVID-19,” she added.
The Director emphasised, however, that these “remarkable efforts” will need to be heightened and sustained over a “longer period than they initially expected”.
As such, she said many governments will have to resort to international cooperation to help deal with some of these expenditures.
She pointed out that partners, like the World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), have offered soft lines of credit or concessional grants to assist governments’ efforts.
Dr. Etienne reiterated that the region will not overcome economic stagnation sparked by the COVID-19 pandemic without controlling the health impacts.
“We need our governments to accept that health is not merely a social sector, [but] a contributor to economic and sustainable development [that] requires a sustained political commitment to ensure sufficient resources are placed from the public purse,” she underscored.
Ms. Bárcena, who concurred that investment in health is crucial to bolstering economic growth, said that there is and can be no tradeoff between both areas.
“So, to contain the pandemic, we need to accelerate access to health systems, and this will boost growth. So [the level of investment] should [ideally] go from [the current average of] 3.8-4.0 per cent to six per cent… and that is crucial,” she emphasised.
The PAHO/ECLAC report, the second by both organisations since the onset of COVID-19, defines scenarios for the pandemic’s control and evolution in the short term, and details recommendations to strengthen governments’ capacity to respond to the health needs of countries’ populations.