PAHO director calls for equitable pandemic recovery in the Americas

PAHO director calls for equitable pandemic recovery in the Americas

Etienne notes more COVAX vaccines “making their way” to the Caribbean but highlights not everyone has been affected equally in pandemic

WASHINGTON, DC — On World Health Day, observed yesterday, Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) Director Carissa F Etienne said COVID-19 has exposed inequalities that are barriers to health for far too many people in the Americas and called on leaders to make equity the “force guiding recovery from the pandemic”.

The pandemic is estimated to have driven between 119 and 124 million more people globally into extreme poverty last year. It is also estimated that 14 years of gains in the fight against poverty have been lost due to the pandemic. And there is convincing evidence that the pandemic has widened gender gaps in employment, with women exiting the labor force in greater numbers than men over the past 12 months.

Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) Director Carissa F Etienne speaks during a COVID-19 press conference on Wednesday, April 7, 2021.

During PAHO’s weekly COVID-19 press briefing, Etienne said: “Over the last year, this virus has greatly deepened the inequities that have long divided this region. While many of us have been lucky enough to continue working during the pandemic from the comfort and safety of home, half of our workforce relies on the informal economy — staying at home would have meant foregoing their livelihoods.”

Many others remain or are newly unemployed. For those who are unemployed, and for the 22 million people who fell into poverty this year in the Americas, “the financial strain of this pandemic has been devastating”.

“Effectively fighting COVID-19 is impossible without addressing some of these inequalities and supporting the most vulnerable as they struggle to protect themselves,” Etienne said.

Noting that vaccinations continue in the Americas, she said that more than 210 million doses of COVID vaccines have been administered across 49 countries and territories in the Americas. PAHO’s Revolving Fund has delivered more than 2.6 million COVID vaccines from the COVAX mechanism to 26 countries, and more doses are making their way to the Caribbean.

“But of course, vaccines are just one part of our COVID response — and we must continue to rely on public health measures to keep our populations and our countries safe,” Etienne said.

She added: “While we have all been affected by this pandemic, we have not been impacted equally. To fight COVID-19 effectively, we must address these inequalities and support the most vulnerable as they struggle to protect themselves.”

The PAHO director continued to call attention to the issue during a virtual event hosted by PAHO for World Health Day later in the day.

“The unprecedented pandemic has brought existing social and economic inequalities to the fore, regrettably exacerbating them,” she said during that event.

“Action to control and treat COVID-19 during the pandemic, as well as during the economic recovery, must be centered on reducing inequalities. We must act decisively now to ensure the right of all members of the population to the highest attainable standard of health.”

Many of the people most affected by the pandemic — female heads of households and Afro-descendent and indigenous women; people earning minimum wage; those with limited or no access to social protection; and people, most often women, performing unpaid caring work — are also employed in work that exposes them to the virus, according to PAHO.

To defeat COVID-19 and recover with a more equitable world, Etienne called for:

  • access to vaccines for all people;
  • increased investment in resilient, responsive and adaptive health systems and primary health care (PHC) using the lens of equity and inclusion;
  • expansion of social protection systems;
  • fair income, decent work, inclusive and strong education systems and decent housing; and
  • strengthened national health information systems to target populations being left behind and monitor equity impacts.

“Starting an equitable and sustainable recovery requires that we prioritize investment in health and social sectors but must also work together with one common goal and shared purpose, recognizing that we must all do our part,” Etienne said.

“Equity should be the force guiding recovery from COVID-19 in the Americas.”