During public health emergencies, people need to know what health risks they face and what actions they can take to protect themselves. Risk communication is an integral part of any emergency response. It is a real-time exchange of information, advice and opinions between experts, community leaders and the people
We are facing a range of threats to public health worldwide. These threats are highly diverse and include infectious disease outbreaks, unsafe food and water, natural and technological hazards, and the health consequences of climate change.
The health, economic, political and societal consequences of these events can be devastating.
In order to address the emerging challenges of public health, more concerted efforts are needed to strengthen a country's capacities for health emergency and disaster risk management, incorporating measures for prevention, mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery.
In this context, reducing the health risks and consequences of emergencies is vital to build the resilience of communities, countries and health systems.
Additionally, the resilience of communities can be further strengthened by supporting them to identify relevant hazards and vulnerabilities, and by building their capacities to mitigate, prepare for, respond to and recover from emergencies. Building on the "whole-of-society" approach, public health emergencies can be effectively managed through active participation of the local governments, health workers, civil society and the private sector.
During public health emergencies, people need to know what health risks they face and what actions they can take to protect their health and lives. Risk communication is an integral part of any emergency response.
It is a real-time exchange of information, advice and opinions between experts, community leaders, or officials, and the people who are at risk.
In the present context, COVID-19 has undoubtedly posed major challenges to public health and well-being across the globe. Sadly, the COVID-19 pandemic has now become a leading cause of death.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), the pandemic has quickly become a global threat to population health, infecting over 174 million people and devastatingly costing more than 3.7 million lives by now.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many countries are still facing disruptions of essential health services, acute lack of medicines, human resources, diagnostics and public transport services. Moreover, the pandemic is disproportionately impacting vulnerable populations, including the socially disadvantaged, older adults and marginalised populations with underlying health conditions.
This clearly demonstrates the persistent inequalities in both health outcomes and health determinants.
In addition, the public health emergencies pose critical challenges to the health systems in many developing countries and slows the progress towards achieving health outcomes and overarching goal of universal health coverage.
The pandemic has significantly impacted the ability of health systems to provide essential health services in developing countries.
In response to service disruptions, many countries are implementing mitigation strategies and approaches, including risk communications, community engagement, recruitment of additional medical staff and provision of home-based care.
Due to limited resources, these efforts are not sufficient to effectively manage the COVID-19 pandemic in most developing countries.
In order to address diverse health demands across nations, there is an emergent need for resilient health systems to respond rapidly and effectively to public health emergencies.
The overarching principles of health equity, multi-sector engagement and universal access to health care should be aligned and mainstreamed into national health policies and strategic priorities in order to respond to the pandemic and other health emergencies.
According to WHO, while considerable progress has been made in recent decades, almost half of the world's population still does not benefit from a complete coverage of essential health services, and millions of people are still being pushed into extreme poverty, because they have to pay for health care.
Therefore, there is an urgent need to overcome the existing barriers to allow access to health care for all.
In case of public health emergencies, investing in health is more critical to have resilient health systems that deliver to all people essential health services of good quality without incurring financial hardship, and to have well-functioning mechanisms to efficiently and effectively prepare for, prevent, detect and respond to health emergencies.
Additionally, there is an emerging need for a coordinated multi-sectoral health emergency surge capacity and preparedness at all levels.
In addition, concerted efforts are needed to improve and maintain early warning systems to mitigate and manage public health risks within the national context.
Moreover, national health emergency operational preparedness planning should be a high priority agenda in emergency response.
In reality, the world was not prepared for health emergencies on such a scale. More comprehensive analysis is required to determine the longer-term consequences of the pandemic for the attainment of universal health coverage and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Leaving no one behind is the overarching refrain of the SDGs.
Therefore, more investments are needed to enhance the capacity of national governments for critical preparedness and readiness, disease surveillance and vaccination rollout at all levels.
That said, health security is a fundamental prerequisite to ensure basic health, achieve universal health coverage and consolidate the hard-earned health gains.
The International Health Regulations (2005) require that countries work together for global health security and build their capacities to detect, assess, report and respond to public health emergencies.
Bhandari is a research fellow in global health and health systems
A version of this article appears in the print on June 10, 2021, of The Himalayan Times.