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How the World Bank is mitigating the impacts of COVID-19 in the health sector

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© Ousmane Traore “Makaveli” / World Bank

Since March 2020, the World Bank Group has been helping client countries respond to the global health, social, and economic impacts of the coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19). In May, we reached a milestone by supporting 100 countries with emergency COVID-19 operations – the largest and fastest crisis response in our history.

This was a landmark moment for the World Bank’s pledge to make available $160 billion in grants and financial support to countries over 15 months. Among the announced country programs, close to 70 are health operations, and 33 percent are in fragile and conflict-affected settings, such as Djibouti, Haiti, and Mali.

The scale and speed of the response has been critical in helping countries mitigate the adverse impacts of the crisis and prioritize the human capital investments that can accelerate recovery. Broadly, these operations focus on three priority areas.

First, helping developing countries implement emergency health operations

To save lives, the World Bank is helping strengthen countries’ health facilities and ensure that enough well-trained frontline health workers are in place. We’re also facilitating countries’ access to critically needed supplies and equipment, by identifying interested suppliers and negotiating prices and conditions.

In the Philippines, one of Southeast Asia’s hardest hit countries, the Bank’s response will strengthen capacity to prevent, detect and respond to the threat posed by COVID-19. Bank funding will also help improve public health preparedness for future disease outbreaks. We will advise the Ministry of Health on the design for hospital isolation and treatment centers to manage patients with severe acute respiratory infections (SARI) and help expand the country’s laboratory capacity.

Similarly, in India, we’re providing our largest ever health sector project with a $1 billion emergency package that will procure testing kits, ventilators, medicines, and personal protective equipment, as well as set up new isolation wards, upgrade existing wards, and expand intensive care units. Disease surveillance will be upgraded to a world-class system. The funds will help strengthen preparedness for disease outbreaks, revamp infectious disease hospitals, and strengthen a network of high containment biosafety laboratories so that India’s health system is prepared to cope with health emergencies in the future.

The project will cover all states and scale up efforts to limit human-to-human and animal-to-human transmission. Additional funds have also been made available to accelerate India’s COVID-19 Social Protection Response Program.

Second, protecting the poorest households and most vulnerable

The World Bank estimates that the coronavirus pandemic will push 71 million people into extreme poverty. Globally, the number of people facing acute food insecurity is also likely to double by the end of the year. Using an inclusive and multisectoral approach, our COVID-19 operations are tackling the impact of the shock on the poorest people and most vulnerable.

In Haiti, the Bank has taken urgent action by providing financing that will not only improve testing and treatment but also prevent food insecurity by safeguarding the agriculture production for the next two cropping seasons.

In Ethiopia, the emergency response will support the country’s National Preparedness and Response Plan for COVID-19. A major transport hub prone to triggering regional and global epidemics, the country also has the largest number of internally displaced persons and is shelter to nearly 750,000 registered refugees from neighboring countries. The financing will help fill critical gaps in prevention activities, including training and protecting health workers’ safety; improving the overall health screening of people entering the country; and establishing quarantine, isolation, and treatment centers.

Since simple handwashing is also critical to preventing illness and death, the projects in Ethiopia will be extended to include water and sanitation by operating in parallel with the One WASH—Consolidated Water Supply, Sanitation, and Hygiene Account Project.

In Pakistan, Bank financing is helping strengthen the country’s health care system while also mitigating socioeconomic disruptions. For example, health workers will be trained to watch for and help prevent gender-based violence in households under quarantine and the World Bank is supporting a teleschool initiative to compensate for school closures due to the lockdown. In addition, 40,000 people whose movement will be restricted for up to 6 months will also receive food rations.

In Djibouti, working with the Ministry of Health, Bank financing is strengthening essential health care service delivery by establishing and equipping quarantine sites and treatment centers to manage COVID-19 cases. This support will be complemented by an additional $8 million from the Contingency Emergency Response Component (CERC) of the Towards Zero Stunting Project, which focuses on the critical first 1,000 days from pregnancy to age two, before stunting becomes largely irreversible.

Third, focusing on stronger health systems and pandemic preparedness

To build a more resilient recovery, the World Bank’s emergency response is helping countries be better prepared for future crises. The COVID-19 pandemic has been a wake-up call, underscoring the importance of investing in resilient health systems that can detect, identify, treat, and halt transmission. It highlights the critical need to invest in better preparedness.

In Ukraine, for example, the financing will help improve the efficiency and quality of health services, particularly for non-communicable diseases, and help prevent, detect, and respond to COVID-19. Up to 40 hospital emergency departments and stroke units will be upgraded to allow them to perform complicated medical procedures using high-tech equipment.

Long before COVID-19, the World Bank had been helping countries strengthen their preparedness to detect and control disease outbreaks. Since 2016, we have been establishing Regional Disease Surveillance Systems Enhancement programs (REDISSE) in 16 countries of West and Central Africa. For example, Mali, a fragile country with a weak health system and limited emergency response capacity, will benefit from the support already provided through this regional program.

In East Africa, governments responding to the coronavirus have also been leveraging capacities established under the East Africa Public Health Laboratory Networking Project, which covers Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda. With most of the hospital laboratories located in cross-border areas, vulnerable groups have been able to access services and preparedness for cross-border outbreaks has been boosted.

As the governor of Wajir, Mohamed Abdi Mohamud, said: “The referral laboratory, with skilled and dedicated staff, has been a great asset to the community and the entire region as a reference laboratory in clinical diagnosis, disease surveillance and outbreak investigations,” commenting on theKenyan laboratory.

As the fight against the pandemic continues, the World Bank’s broad, fast action is helping developing countries strengthen their pandemic response and health care systems. We are also working with partner agencies on the global efforts to accelerate the development and equitable distribution of a COVID-19 vaccine.