Editor’s Note: Dr. Vanessa Kerry is a critical care physician at Mass General Hospital, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School and CEO of Seed Global Health, which partners with governments to invest in health care capacity for national, economic and human security. The views expressed here are solely hers. Read more opinion on CNN.
Last Thursday marked one year since the World Health Organization (WHO) declared Covid-19 a global pandemic. The statistics on lives lost are heartbreaking. The reports of economic and labor disruptions are staggering. For decades to come families will bear these impacts; from the empty seat at the dining room table to devastating medical bills and lost wages.
Among the many casualties of Covid, you’ll find an underreported but alarming danger: Last week, health workers’ deaths due to the pandemic reached the gruesome milestone of 17,000 across 70 countries. According to Amnesty International, this equates to a health worker dying from Covid-19 every 30 minutes.
A hollowed-out health corps will haunt societies long after Covid-19 becomes a bitter memory. Long-term investment in health workers – a response that governments and health systems often fail to deliver – is more acutely needed now than at any time since AIDS devastated health infrastructure in sub-Saharan Africa 25 years ago.
In countries where resources are limited, setbacks like the loss of trained health workers cannot be easily overcome. I have seen this challenge first-hand. At Seed Global Health, a non-profit organization that I co-founded, we work in countries with shortages of health workers to help increase the number of providers who can deliver quality care and address a country’s urgent health priorities. Partnering with local governments and training institutions, we labored for over six years to train 16,000 physicians, nurses, and midwives.
As we mourn the historic levels of health worker deaths – a tragedy in and of itself – we should also recognize the loss of the time, effort, partnership and public investment that was expended in building a country’s health workforce, an effort that now must begin again. Unlike developed economies where emergency financial stimulus can be mobilized to dampen acute hardship, in low-resource settings, the death of health workers also represents the loss of a critical foundation that has taken time to build.
Unfortunately, in rebuilding, we are starting from behind. A shortage in the global health workforce was a chronic issue for decades – even before Covid. In 2015, the WHO estimated the global shortage would grow to 18 million health workers by 2030. It is easy to see why health systems across the world are so strained and under-resourced.
Looking to the future, we simply cannot assume that people will again fill out the health-care worker ranks to return to pre-Covid states. Beyond the loss of the current workforce to Covid-19, health worker burnout is forcing many to leave the field, and there have also been massive disruptions to the pipeline of new trainees as schools closed or classes were interrupted. Governments, multilateral agencies and development funders will need to invest intentionally to undo the damage and proactively protect ourselves in the future.
The global community is capable of this response. Across international aid, finance and technology sectors, among others, coalitions have already formed to address Covid shortages in personal protective equipment, ventilators, and oxygen. Most notably, to improve equity and access to vaccines, governments – from the European Commission to Spain and to South Korea – have mobilized more than $2 billion in support of the COVAX Facility, the global mechanism for procuring and distributing Covid vaccines. These programs have each targeted inequities and shortages either resulting from or exacerbating the current global crisis.
Some may feel the price tag of a globally coordinated, multi-sector health worker investment program is too great and the payback period too far into the future. The case for investing is as clear as it is compelling. Look no further than the pandemic to see the painful consequences should we choose not to invest in the health workforce today.
In 2020, Covid contributed to global economic losses estimated at $375 billion per month, according to the International Monetary Fund. In education, the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund reported that more than 1 billion children are at risk of falling behind due to classroom closures and education disruptions. And in gender equity, the pandemic has forced women to drop out of the workforce at rates far greater than men.
It will take years to address the myriad disruptions caused by the pandemic and our failure to prioritize health and the training, safety and well-being. Today, we mourn for more than 17,000 health workers who lost their lives in service to others. We can honor the legacies of those lives cut short by beginning the work to rebuild and to do so immediately.
We must support, protect and invest in health workers – both now and in the long-term. We have a new crisis on our hands: rebuilding health’s frontlines and fragile health systems.