The world has changed dramatically in the short time since I shared my thoughts on how heroines such as Mama Beatrice, a midwife in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and her colleagues are advancing the health of women and girls by providing safe antenatal care and family planning services in some of the most vulnerable communities. It’s dedicated healthcare workers like Beatrice that have been leading the fight to push down deaths in childbirth globally by around 40% since 2000. But now Beatrice and her colleagues are on the frontlines of the global battle against COVID-19, which threatens to turn the clock back on years of progress for women, children and adolescent health.
As we saw in the 2014-16 Ebola crisis in West Africa, when already fragile health systems must flex to respond to a serious outbreak, funding and efforts to deliver routine health services for women and children are often diverted, endangered or deprioritized, with devastating knock-on health effects. We are already seeing this happen in many of the countries supported by the Global Financing Facility (GFF), jeopardizing access to routine health services such as ante-natal care, family planning, attended births, and childhood vaccinations. Supply chain disruptions and challenges in the procurement of essential commodities are already resulting in low-stocked clinics, low medicine supplies and inadequate protective equipment. In Zimbabwe, health workers, including midwives, have threatened to stop working because of low-stocked facilities, and some hospitals have closed sections providing vital services like post-natal care. According to Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, as of late April routine childhood vaccination campaigns supported by Gavi had been postponed in at least 21 countries, threatening the resurgence of preventable diseases such as polio, measles, cholera, human papillomavirus, yellow fever and meningitis.
And these are just some of the early findings; each day our team we learn more devastating news about women and children in our partner low- and lower-middle-income countries who can’t access the care they need to survive and thrive.
For the GFF, this is simply unacceptable. That’s why we’ve joined Beatrice and frontline workers in this fight.
First, we have rallied the support of top global partners to call attention to the impacts of COVID-19 and the need to ensure that safe and equitable delivery of essential health and nutrition services for women and children is supported as a central part of effective COVID-19 response and recovery efforts.
Second, capitalizing on our robust country portfolio, technical expertise, and strong global and in-country partner networks, we are providing support to countries in three ways :
Helping countries prioritize and plan for continuation of essential health services for women and children
- The GFF is supporting our country partners to access the best evidence to guide their prioritization of essential health services for women and children, and conduct resource mapping and expenditure tracking to ensure these services are sufficiently and efficiently financed and executed. This coordination effort is strengthened by the GFF’s knowledge and learning infrastructure which is facilitating webinars and enabling rapid, real-time sharing of information and good practices across countries.
Strengthening frontline service delivery
- The GFF is working closely with the World Bank Group (WBG) to ensure that the continuation of essential reproductive, maternal, newborn, child and adolescent health services is part of new projects and investments as part of its massive response to COVID-19. Through technical assistance and flexible financing, we are supporting our partner countries to adapt their service delivery models, secure essential family planning, maternal and child health commodities, and protect their frontline health workers.
Addressing constraints in service demand
- We must not only ensure lifesaving health services are available, but also make sure women and their families can and will access them. We know the pandemic is dampening demand for health care, whether because people fear getting infected in health facilities, because of lockdowns, or because they can’t afford to pay. That’s why the GFF is also supporting countries with public communications and behavior change campaigns that aim to counteract misinformation and advise communities on how to seek care safely.
We are all indebted to the Mama Beatrices of the world who are the essential workers - and true heroines – in the fight against COVID-19 and the everyday threats to the health and well-being of women, children and adolescents. It’s our job to stand with them and ensure they have the resources, data, tools and political support they need to save lives - not only during this pandemic, but beyond.