Opinion: 2 ways that Biden can help health workers and fight COVID-19

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A front-line medical worker with a patient at a hospital in Muntinlupa, Philippines. Photo by: Minette Rimando / ILO / ILO Asia-Pacific / CC BY-NC-ND

President Joe Biden and his team have laid out an ambitious plan to tackle COVID-19 in the United States. But to truly end the pandemic, we must also address it at a global level. Without worldwide herd immunity through vaccination, no country’s health security can be ensured.

The U.S. can and must partner with other countries to end COVID-19 globally and restore critical health services it has derailed. I urge the administration to go beyond its current commitments to take two immediate actions:

Prioritize health workers’ needs, including through long-term global health funding

There were health worker strikes in dozens of countries last year, in many cases due to poor working conditions. If health workers’ needs are not met, our response to COVID-19 — and any future pandemic — will fail.

When I started my career, it was at the beginning of another health crisis: HIV. I was working for the U.S. Agency for International Development in Nigeria to scale up HIV treatment services — a task that, at the time, seemed insurmountable. I saw how health workers rose to the challenge by opening for sunrise hours, working after hours, and providing home visits to help those in need. Today, thanks to health workers, 1.1 million people in Nigeria are on antiretroviral treatment.

And every day, I now see health workers around the world rising to the challenge of this pandemic — at great personal risk to themselves and their families.

We must meet front-line health workers’ heroic sacrifices with honor, compassion, and support.

Health workers are essential to detecting outbreaks early and leading responses. But health workers also need on-the-job protection — everything from personal protective equipment to strong policies and management that safeguard against sexual harassment and assault. They need relief from burnout. And they need to be put at the front of the line for the COVID-19 vaccine in every country. As women make up 70% of the health workforce, our response must address the specific barriers women health workers face.

“While everyone is advised to do social distancing, this never applies to nurses,” Irine Chelag’at Birira, a nurse in Namibia, told our team at IntraHealth. “A nurse has to be at a health facility or hospital to do what they do best, taking care of the sick, including the patients with COVID-19. There are things you aren’t prepared for in life. You must be strong.”

By September 2020, 1 in 7 reported cases of COVID-19 were among health workers and at least 7,000 health workers had died due to COVID-19. These numbers are likely extreme underestimates, due to our lack of complete data.

The World Health Organization also projects a global shortage of 18 million health workers by 2030, mostly in low- and middle-income countries. The tremendous progress we’ve all made in global health over the past decades, including in pandemic preparedness, will stall without greater investment in front-line health workers. We must learn from this crisis and make urgent changes in the U.S. approach, starting with the recommendations outlined by the Frontline Health Workers Coalition.

The Biden administration should prioritize new, long-term funding for front-line health workers so we can build, develop, and sustain the global workforce we need to keep our population safe. WHO is calling for investment in health workers’ education and employment during the pandemic. The U.S. should contribute its fair share to meet its funding target.

Propose emergency funding to address this crisis globally

This is more than a global health security emergency; it’s also a humanitarian crisis.

“Even when suffering from other illnesses, many mothers are now afraid to go to health facilities because of COVID-19,” Rokhayatou Gueye, a midwife in Senegal, told us. “I’ve seen a decrease in attendance at health facilities and failures to meet appointments.”

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Ninety percent of countries have experienced this kind of disruption to essential health services. Low- and middle-income countries are reporting the greatest difficulties. A second wave of COVID-19 in Africa has far surpassed the height of the continent’s last peak in July, threatening even greater interruptions to health services.

We should act now to ensure we don’t lose the global progress we’ve made in public health. The U.S. administration should work with Congress to ensure the country provides at least $20 billion for the international response, including $11 billion to support and restore global health services, as called for by the Global Health Council. This is a modest investment compared with the enormous global economic toll of COVID-19.

The U.S. should also dedicate $500 million to support front-line health workers, while working with other countries and WHO to support surge capacity of the front-line health workforce. This includes monitoring the impact that COVID-19 is having on health workers and providing the supplies and remuneration they need to do their work. Money is urgently needed for temporary housing at or near health centers, in addition to child care, hazard pay, meals, airtime for telemedicine visits, and mental health services.

We must meet front-line health workers’ heroic sacrifices with honor, compassion, and support. I urge President Biden and his team to seize the opportunity to take the needs of these workers into account, while leading the U.S. and the world to a stronger, safer, healthier future for everyone.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Polly Dunford

    Polly Dunford is president and CEO at IntraHealth International. She has almost 20 years of experience with the U.S. Agency for International Development in Cambodia, Haiti, Jordan, Mozambique, Nigeria, and Washington, most recently serving as global director for HIV/AIDS. In this role, she led the agency’s efforts to help countries achieve and sustain epidemic control of HIV/AIDS under the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief.