Responding to an Unprecedented Health Emergency Across Asia and the Pacific

By Patrick Osewe

As vaccines are rolled out across Asia and the Pacific, governments need to ensure equitable and transparent distribution. They also need to undertake deep healthcare reforms to manage future health crises. ADB's top health expert answers the pertinent questions. 

Can economic recovery from COVID-19 help us move toward a green and resilient economic model?

COVID-19 has had a very, very devastating impact on the health system in our developing member countries for variety of reasons.

First, the numbers of people who were sick that required health care was quite significant, and the health system could not just cope. We just did not have sufficient healthcare workers to take care of all of them. Second, the healthcare workers themselves got sick and had to be quarantined at home. And in some situations, the healthcare workers died. And it takes 20 years to produce a medical doctor. And that was really unfortunate.

And third, the population was also afraid of going to the hospital. And so, for people who have chronic illnesses that required health care, they were not able to go and these conditions worsened. So COVID-19 had a very, very negative impact on the health system in our DMCs.

What are the key priorities for countries as they embark on their vaccination programs?

There are several key priorities regarding the deployment of the vaccination program. The first is to ensure that there’s equity and transparency so that the vaccines are not captured by only the rich and the elite.

The second one is to ensure that there’s a good system of distribution of the vaccines because they require cold chains. So, how vaccines are going to be distributed, particularly complex countries like Philippines, that’s more than 7000 islands, and Indonesia – more than 17000 islands.

Third is ensuring that we have sufficient healthcare workers. And looking at what other workers can come and help healthcare workers because vaccinating so many people might overwhelm the heath system.

And lastly, is putting a right system in place to track the people who have been vaccinated, and if they have any what we call adverse events, meaning that some people when they get vaccinated, they might get either pain at the side of injection, or they might get actually fever or slightly sicker, so the health system need to know if there’s any complications arising from vaccination.

Photos: ADB

How vital is it for the countries to start moving toward universal healthcare systems to emerge from this pandemic and to protect against the future ones?

It’s critically important that our developing member countries either initiate or accelerate progress towards universal health coverage. If you look at the countries that perform better during this pandemic, these are countries that have invested in universal health coverage, whereby they have primary care facilities that have good trained staff and also have equipment, that they’re able to detect any infection at the very early stages before it starts to spread.

So, I think that investing in universal health coverage is a top priority for ADB, and we are engaging developing member countries to be able to accelerate progress towards the goal of ensuring that everybody is covered.

What are the overall lessons we can take away from the pandemic in terms of our health systems?

There are five takeaways. The first one is strong political commitment and public trust. In countries where the leadership came out very strongly in terms of educating the public, those countries did much better than countries where political leadership did not come out right at the beginning to address the problem.

The second takeaway is preparedness. Countries that have had pandemics in the past were better prepared because they knew exactly what to do in the event of a pandemic. And therefore, they were able to mobilize the whole government to be able to address the challenges to arise because of the pandemic.

The third takeaway is fast action. Some countries were slow in reacting. And they started reacting when many people were already infected. And it was very difficult at that time to contain the virus. But some countries acted very fast and they were able to lock down only the very small, few communities that had those infections.

Fourth is basically follow the science. What does the science say? If it’s a science that people should wear masks, people should be quarantined. It’s basically to implement what the science says. In many situations there were countries that were not able to apply the knowledge that was required to able to address the spread of the infection.

And lastly is leveraging the private sector. The private sector is very significant particularly in our region. How do you engage the private sector? They have health facilities. They have the technical know-how to do research, and to come up with various interventions that are required. So, a combination of public-private partnership to address the pandemic is very, very key to ensure that the countries are better prepared and also we are prepared for future pandemics.

This is an edited transcript. Watch the full interview here.