Your Questions Answered: Impacts of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Healthcare and Education in Asia and the Pacific

The pandemic had wide ranging impacts across the region. Photo: ADB
The pandemic had wide ranging impacts across the region. Photo: ADB

By Arief Ramayandi, Minhaj Mahmud, Daniel Suryadarma

ADB’s Arief Ramayandi, Minhaj Mahmud and Daniel Suryadarma answer questions about the impact of COVID-19 on Asia and the Pacific.

The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted society and the global economy unlike anything since the 1930’s Great Depression. Aside from all the deaths, suffering, uncertainty, lockdowns, social restrictions, loss of incomes and jobs, it also increased poverty and widened inequality worldwide. Now, as many economies in Asia and the Pacific still recover, people are seeking answers. 

Taken separately or together, all the impacts mentioned above affected people’s psychological well-being to varying degrees. The different effects happened directly from the pandemic and the stringency of measures taken to contain it, as well as indirectly from lost jobs and declining livelihoods. Among the economies whose people suffered the highest increase in depressive symptoms, stricter mobility restrictions were linked to more cases of depression.

First, there were large learning losses. Second, not only do students take time to catch up, but it damages their future earnings. The evidence shows that  longer school closures resulted in larger learning losses and increased learning inequality. Most schools had reopened by February 2022. The problem is that most returned to business as usual, rather than trying to rapidly recover lost learning. That’s why there is a high risk of permanent scarring, which significantly lowers the lifetime income of the students who had to stay home. Also, school closures made pre-existing learning poverty worse, as well as learning gaps between children from higher- and lower-income families. 

 COVID-19 exposed the gaps in approaches to health system preparedness. Most economies were shocked by the pandemic. Even those which went through the SARS and MERS viruses, or those which had dealt with avian flu, were not ready for the COVID-19 onslaught. Traditional measures such as number of hospital beds or public health spending as a share of GDP did not necessarily affect pandemic responses or outcomes. There is a lack of investment to keep core public health functions up to date, which include surveillance, reporting, communications, and coordination to create flexible responses. Robust public health laboratories are needed and delivery of essential care must be assured. 

The economies that successfully contained the virus built responses that involved a broad set of people with diverse expertise across multiple sectors, which enabled them to react swiftly and aggressively. Across the region, the success of the Republic of Korea with testing and digital contact tracing stood out; along with the prevention, detection, and reporting of cases in Thailand and Viet Nam. Careful calibration of mobility restrictions was also effective in limiting transmission in economies like the Republic of Korea, New Zealand, Japan, Australia, and Hong Kong, China.

Many economies lacked manufacturing capacity or an approval process for producing vaccines and needed medical supplies. Vaccine doses in some economies were 8 to 10 times their population, while others, usually developing countries, did not have enough to vaccinate their population once. It also took much longer for many developing countries to secure vaccine supplies. And they had to overcome significant challenges in quickly distributing vaccines to their people.

Data capabilities allow policymakers to conduct near real-time assessments, make informed decisions, and rapidly evaluate and correct courses if needed. Health-related data in many developing economies were limited and outdated. About half of ADB’s 46 developing economies had official data on the number of health facilities or equipment available with some of those data last updated over a decade ago. Critical data, like the available hospital beds or intensive care units, were missing or sparse. 

Data were not standardized and the quality depended on local capabilities, implying variations in reliability and validity, resulting in a high risk of misinterpretation. Governments must work to make better health system data available as rapidly updated data, data wrangling, and data analysis are vital.  Those with better data infrastructure were better able to deal with the pandemic. And those with access to broadband internet had lower COVID-19 severity as well.

Prior to the development and roll-out of COVID-19 vaccines, governments relied on restrictions such as lockdowns and school closures, which stymied many economies. Given all the worries and uncertainties, only essential workers and services were allowed to continue during the first few months of the pandemic. Stringent restrictions resulted in large drops in GDP per capita, lost jobs, and increased mental stress—even after restrictions were loosened. Recovering fully from these disruptions will take many years, especially in developing economies. The challenge now is to grab this post-pandemic opportunity to better prepare health systems for the next pandemic, in whatever form it takes. A key takeaway is that better data management can lead to a better response.

This blog was based on research conducted for the publication What Has COVID-19 Taught Us About Asia’s Health Emergency Preparedness and Response?  Dennis Sorino and Guy Sacerdoti contributed research. 

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