This blog originally appeared on Investing in Health 16 October 2020

When I joined in 2019 as the Director of the Global Financing Facility for Women, Children and Adolescents (GFF), I couldn’t have imagined that just one year later I would be writing with such alarm for the health and well-being of the world’s population. It was just a year ago that world leaders and global health advocates gathered at the United Nations to reaffirm their commitments to achieving universal health coverage (UHC) by 2030 and scaling up investments in primary health care. A concerted years-long drive by governments and international partners had led to a 40 percent drop in maternal deaths in childbirth and a 46 percent drop in infant mortality rates. Many of us were feeling optimistic that this track record of progress combined with the renewed high-level of political priority for investing in health would translate into a decade of accelerated action toward the Global Goals.

Threats to recent gains for women’s and children’s health

Now, COVID-19 is unleashing substantial health, social and economic impacts in every corner of the globe.  But it is the poorest countries and the most vulnerable communities around the world that stand to suffer the most from this protracted health crisis.  The virus and its knock-on effects threaten to push as many as 100 million people into extreme poverty and reverse the hard-fought recent gains in reproductive, maternal, newborn, child and adolescent health and nutrition. 

Routine, essential health services for women, children and adolescents are being diverted and deprioritized, with a potentially devastating impact on health and equity. Recent monitoring and analysis from the GFF of more than 60,000 health facilities across 10 partner countries found substantial disruptions in vaccinations for young children, outpatient visits, care for pregnant women and new mothers, and safe deliveries by skilled health workers.

Significant improvements in access to quality, affordable health services at stake

Prior to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, as GFF’s just released annual report shows, the countries where the GFF partnership has been in place the longest were showing significant improvements in access to quality, affordable health services, as well as progress on critical indicators for reducing maternal and child mortality and improving nutrition.  More children were receiving the needed immunizations and nutrition. More women were giving birth safely and accessing the lifesaving services needed before and after childbirth. And more women were able to access family planning services that help pave the way for healthier families and stronger economies. But this global progress is now in grave peril: As the 2020 Goalkeepers report said, the world was set back about 25 years in 25 weeks ― and the end of the pandemic is not near.

This report confirms that the GFF’s collaborative, country-led approach in its 36 partner countries has been working, and it shows what’s at stake if we don’t act urgently to protect these lifesaving, life-changing gains. For example, in Afghanistan, contraceptive protection increased by 55 percent and 36 percent more women attended postnatal visits. In Rwanda, tackling childhood development across sectors has resulted in 3.15 million children being screened for malnutrition. And in Ethiopia, community health insurance was expanded to cover 28 percent of the population, which resulted in greater use of health services for those insured and helped lessen the financial burden for families.

Standing side-by-side with country partners

In the wake of COVID-19, the GFF’s reason for being – to keep a laser focus on accelerating progress on reproductive, maternal, newborn, child and adolescent health and nutrition outcomes in the world’s poorest countries and among the most vulnerable populations within these countries – is more critical than ever. By empowering countries to lead and enabling global health partners to achieve more working together, the GFF provides the catalytic platform the world needs to protect recent health gains, ensure countries can continue to deliver essential health and nutrition services during the pandemic, and support them to get back on track as quickly as possible.

The GFF is primed and ready to ensure that the world’s most vulnerable women, children and adolescents are not left behind. We are humbled to stand side-by-side with our country partners on the frontlines of this challenge, working closely with our global partners in the World Bank Group, the United Nations, bilateral donors, foundations, civil society and business, to build back better. Now is the time for all of us to double down on our shared commitment: To ensure the world is solidly on the path to realizing the goal that every woman, child, and adolescent ― everywhere ― can access the essential, quality, affordable health care they need to survive and thrive.