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The response to COVID-19 showed how healthcare systems should take on such fast-spreading risks. Those outcomes must never be forgotten. Image Credit: Supplied

As we emerge from this pandemic, it becomes crucial to reflect on the lessons learned from this experience as we prepare for the next. We know that no health system in the world was prepared for a shock of this magnitude – so how do we better prepare for the emergencies to come?

The answer lies in building health system resilience – but what does this mean? COVID-19 exposed and exacerbated pre-existing, long-standing vulnerabilities in healthcare systems. According to the Global Health Security index, released shortly before the first reports of the spread of COVID-19, no nation was considered equipped to handle a global pandemic.

Health systems struggled to handle the volume of patients and access to routine healthcare has been severely disrupted due to overwhelmed healthcare facilities and burnt-out healthcare workers. Many systems were left stretched beyond their capacity while others simply collapsed.

Most definitions of health system resilience are centered around the concept of preparedness planning in response to future emergencies and acute shocks, while minimizing the consequences resulting from these shocks. Although this may sound easy in principle, it requires key policy changes ahead across multiple areas such as evidence-based investment, decision making, sound data collection and analysis, and a redesign of health systems.

Go for PPP

Planning for resilience requires an integrated, inter-sectoral, and multi-sectoral approach. We’ve seen for instance that during the pandemic the health systems of many countries, including Malaysia, India and Qatar, tapped into the private workforce through public-private partnerships – an approach that was considered extremely effective. Resilience planning should also prioritize the needs of the population as a whole (equally and without exception) not only during a public health emergency, but before, and long after.

During the sixth edition of the World Innovation Summit for Health (WISH) conference, ministers of health, policymakers, health system leaders, and field experts will come together to discuss one of the conference’s core topic areas: COVID-19 legacy. This theme will examine how we can build stronger, more resilient health systems through proposing policy revisions across different areas such as vaccine innovation and equity, and the mental health of health and care workers.

The WISH report on building health system resilience in the aftermath of COVID-19 offers a set of practical and attainable policy recommendations that cover short-term (over the next 12 months), medium (12-24 months) and longer-term (24-36 months) commitments aimed at governments and policymakers.

Short-term targets

In summary, the short-term actions include the development of pandemic preparedness plans that are evidence-based and multi-sectoral. Specific objectives will include the establishment of a pandemic command-and-control center that has the authority to declare national outbreaks and develop a plan of action in response to ‘Disease X’.

In the medium-term, health system leaders are recommended to reflect on the challenges faced during the COVID-19 pandemic, and to tackle these weaknesses through the adaptation of care models, the development of information systems, and strengthening and empowering the health workforce. In addition, they are encouraged to learn from the responses that worked well and strengthen those models of working such as in the case of public-private partnerships.

Longer-term policy recommendations are to be implemented at a national and international-level and cover structural and regulatory elements aimed at improving resilience. These recommendations should also ensure global coordination for future pandemics through the collaboration of international organizations.

These recommended actions and more will be discussed during the event in October.