Epidemics can devastate any unprepared healthcare system
Epidemics can devastate any unprepared healthcare system
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Epidemics: A national ‘health terrorist’ that needs adequate preparedness and funding to fight 

“We seem not to learn from our past events. But if you failed to learn the simple way, life will certainly teach you the hard way. Our preparedness to prevent, contain and control diseases, most especially epidemics, has not been the best over the years” 

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The above remarks were made by Ms Linda Esi Owusu, a Public Health advocate. Her reason is that there is no better way to protect the health and wellbeing of your citizens as well as their livelihoods, including businesses, than to institute adequate and proactive emergency measures, including health emergencies such as epidemics.

“Epidemics can have a long-lasting impact on the national economy if there are no mechanisms to handle them timely. They devastate the world’s poorest countries, lessening their ability to develop economically,” Ms Owusu added. 

She believes that failing to institute health emergency plans in this “era of uncertainties, particularly regarding disease outbreaks” such as epidemics, could risk the future of any nation, especially in the developing economies such as Ghana.

The Public Health advocate, whose specialty is in the area of Epidemiology, argues that epidemics also erode health systems, disproportionately affecting vulnerable groups—women and children.

For Ms Owusu, the cost of epidemics on businesses, social life, education and the healthcare sectors should be enough reasons to compel duty bearers entrusted with the responsibility to protect the lives and property of their people to act swiftly.

She explains that not preparing for epidemic outbreaks costs far more than putting systems in place to prevent or contain them on time.

“We can contain epidemics before they spread through preparations backed by adequate funding streams. We just need to prepare ourselves for some of these things,” she added.  

In her words, epidemics should be “considered as terrorists of health,” adding that “terrorists hardly give notice of their attacks, but when they strike, they often leave traces of pains and damages after their visit.”

For Ms Owusu, COVID-19 should serve as a landmark health emergency problem that should inspire all nations, be it developed or developing nations, to institute preventive measures to contain any health emergencies in any form.

“When COVID-19 came, we all saw how unprepared we were, particularly the developing economies, which Ghana is a part,” she noted, stressing “For me, COVID-19 should have been the cardinal point of our attitude towards epidemic preparedness and response financing.”

She added, “There is no better day than today to set up a fund dedicated purposely for fighting epidemics in our country. Nobody can tell when we are going to experience our next epidemics.”

Ms Owusu noted that it would be suicidal for Ghana to be caught unprepared again for any major epidemic, saying “It will be our loss if we sit unconcerned for us to be caught in the middle of another epidemic.”

For her, despite numerous warnings and economic calculations, the country seems not to be paying attention to calls to set up epidemic preparedness and response funds—adding that if you don’t invest in preparedness, you can easily be overtaken by surprises at a huge cost.

Lessons from COVID-19 

Ghana began preparing for the spread of COVID-19 in January 2020 with the establishment of a National Technical Coordinating Committee tasked to review the country’s resilience and preparedness to manage an outbreak. By early March, President Akufo-Addo committed GH¢572 million (US$ 100 million) towards the COVID-19 National Preparedness and Response Plan, which sought to strengthen the capacity of health facilities, laboratories, and points of entry to detect and control the viral spread and to create public awareness. 

Although by March 23, 2020, Ghana had only recorded 25 cases, Ghana’s international borders were closed, initially for two weeks, but several further extensions were later announced. On March 30, a partial lockdown was announced in Ghana’s largest metropolitan areas—Greater Accra and Greater Kumasi.

The lockdown was extended for one week until April 20, 2020. All residents were directed to remain home, only leaving for essential purchases such as food, medicine, and water or essential services—banking transactions, use of public toilet facilities, or medical care.

The lockdown further prohibited the inter-city movement of vehicles and aircraft for private and commercial purposes, except for those providing essential services and moving cargo. Within city limits, passenger vehicles and taxis were instructed to reduce their numbers of passengers, resulting in an estimated 25 to 33 per cent reduction in capacity.

The lockdown was formally lifted after three weeks primarily due to concerns about its devastating socioeconomic impacts. Ghana also lifted all COVID-19 restrictions at entry points across the country, effective, Saturday, May 20, 2023. The announcement was made by the Director-General of the Ghana Health Service (GHS), Dr. Patrick Kuma-Aboagye in a statement.

The cost of epidemics 

Ms Owusu explained that pandemics and epidemics are costly to fight, and have a big impact on economies, hence the need for the country to do “everything” to protect ourselves against any epidemics.

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In 2018, for instance, epidemics reportedly cost the world $60 billion a year. Similarly, COVID-19 is said to have cost governments an estimated US$11 trillion by the end of 2021.

The sad reality is that the impact of COVID-19 has pushed many people, particularly women into extreme poverty, making it difficult for many nations across the globe to achieve Sustainable Development Goals 1 and 2, which is to end poverty and hunger in all its forms.

In 2014, for instance, when Ebola struck in West Africa, $2.2 billion of economic growth was lost in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. Similarly, when Zika hit the Americas in 2016, the short-term economic impact was $3.5 billion, according to a World Bank estimate.    

To slow the spread of COVID-19, schools were closed across the world. As a result of this, it’s estimated that 100 million children will fall below the minimum proficiency level in reading.  

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According to the United Nations, 94 percent of students globally have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic through school closures. School closures have a disproportionate effect on vulnerable groups, particularly in low- and middle-income countries.

Innovation for Poverty Action, a global research and policy nonprofit organisation, for instance, argues that the impact is expected to go beyond educational outcomes as closures hamper the provision of essential services to children and communities, including access to school meals, the ability of many parents to work, and increase the risk of violence against women and children.

There are other consequences to school closures. Millions of girls in some countries might not be going back at all putting them at risk of adolescent pregnancy, child marriage and violence. 

Why epidemics are a threat? 

Epidemics have long been a threat to human existence. For instance, this year marks the 106th anniversary of the deadliest epidemic in history - the 1918 Spanish Influenza outbreak, which killed around 50 million people.

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Ghana is said to be prone to some epidemics including Avian influenza, Cholera, Ebola, Plague, Yellow fever, Meningitis, MERS, Influenza, Zika, Rift Valley Fever, Lassa fever, drug-resistant infections, and Leptospirosis. 

The number and kind of infectious disease outbreaks have increased significantly over the past 30 years. And as global trade and travel increases, so does the international spread of disease - and so does the economic impact of outbreaks. 

According to World Bank estimates, the annual global cost of moderately severe to severe pandemics is roughly $570 billion, or 0.7% of global income.

Victims of epidemics  

Francis Boateng, 43, a father of three, lost her livelihood during the COVID-19 period and has never remained the same, so he shared his story.

“The company I was working for folded up due to the impact of COVID-19. I have since been home, struggling to feed my family,” he disclosed, adding that had it not been for the proceeds from his wife’s small business, it would have been practically impossible for his family to feed.

When introduced to the concept of setting up epidemic preparedness and response fund in the country to help deal with any unforeseen outbreaks, Francis strongly embraced the campaign and urged all Ghanaians to support the idea.

“We should not do politics as usual with this epidemics fund campaign. Everyone must support it because it will help we the ordinary people,” he noted.

Like Francis, Abena Ampratwum, who also lost her job at the peak of COVID-19 believes that African nations ought to sit up and plan ahead of time as well as reduce their dependency on the developed world for assistance for critical issues such as health.

“I was barely two years in my company [which she withheld the name] when COVID-19 lockdown happened. The company couldn’t handle salaries after COVID-19 so we were asked to stay home,” she narrated.

Victoria Keelson, 28, an entrepreneur, whose business made some significant losses during the COVID-19 also believes preventive and adequate funding support could help healthcare workers and allied agencies to handle epidemics in the country.

“We all need to support the epidemic preparedness fund campaign. It is the way to go,” she said, urging the private sector to put more pressure on the government to set up the fund since they are the worst affected individuals by epidemics.

Why the Epidemic Preparedness Fund 

Global Health Advocacy Incubator (GHAI) and SEND Ghana have been advocating for the setting up of an epidemic and response fund in Ghana over the last two years. They have consequently called on the Government of Ghana to establish a Public Health Emergency Fund in the country.

They (GHAI and SEND Ghana) believe that the implementation of a domestic financing mechanism for health emergency preparedness and response would fortify the nation's Global Health Security capacities and ensure rapid and effective response to health emergencies.

Delivering a welcome address at the 2023 SEND Ghana media awards, the Chief Executive Officer of SEND West Africa, Mr. Siapha Kamara, urged the government to heed the calls for domestic financing.

He highlighted the need for continued support in strengthening the nation's health system.

Also sharing his views on the subject, the Head of Department, Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics, (EPB) of the School of Public Health at C.K TEDAM University of Technology and Applied Sciences (CKT-UTAS), Dr Paul Welaga, said if the government should set up the epidemic preparedness fund, it would help to improve health outcomes in the country, particularly in tackling epidemics.

"So, I think that it is critical that the government invests in the epidemic fund," he stated, adding that it would be wrong for the country to wait for the next epidemic to strike before setting up a fund to handle it.

Dr Welage, whose research interest is on child health and survival with emphasis on evaluating the effects of vaccines on child health and survival, explained that for scientists to access and prepare for epidemics, they need funds to enable them to monitor viruses which would help with early detection of epidemics.

Similarly, the Laboratory Manager of the Kintampo Research Centre, Dr David Dosoo, described the calls for the setting up of an epidemic preparedness and response fund as a “call in the right direction.”

He noted that funding remained a key component of any research, arguing that “funding for research is very key and if there is no funding, you cannot have the right equipment in place; you cannot have the needed reagents that you need to do the testing and be able to test and give very reliable results.”

Dr Dosoo noted that you cannot fight epidemics if the healthcare system cannot provide facilities to provide accurate diagnosis. 
  

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