The coronavirus pandemic is “surging’ across the Americas, the Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO) declared today, as both cases of COVID-19 and deaths from the disease rose by the same magnitude in a week.
The development prompted PAHO Director Dr Carissa Etienne to warn the hemisphere’s authorities that slowing the spread of the pandemic depends on protecting the estimated 221 million “vulnerable groups” of poor people, indigenous communities and women.
More than two million cases and more than 121,000 deaths due to COVID-19 were reported in the Americas as of Tuesday – a 14 per cent increase in both cases and deaths from last week.
She said in a weekly briefing of journalists: “If we want to slow the spread of the pandemic and put our region on a path to recovery, we must protect vulnerable groups from COVID-19.”
“The virus is surging across our region. We are increasingly worried about the poor and other vulnerable groups at greatest risk of illness and death from the virus. The recent spike in cases and fatalities is partly due to the virus taking root in these groups.”
Dr Etienne suggested the pandemic highlighted the value of universal health coverage, which provides primary health care to all people free at the point of delivery. PAHO has been promoting universal health coverage throughout the Caribbean and Latin America, though many countries have yet to introduce it, despite repeated declarations of support.
She called for improved access to effective public health services, the strengthening of health system capacity to better serve the vulnerable and for strong social and economic protections.
She said: “During a pandemic, we must overcome the structural inequalities that limit access to services. This means establishing mechanisms that support universal access to health regardless of income, pooling resources with the private and not for profit sector, eliminating payment at point of service and setting up emergency hospitals that add surge capacity where it is most needed.”
Dr Etienne also raised her concern that women will suffer the brunt of the pandemic’s fallout.
“Women, who make up 70 per cent of the health workforce in the Americas, are also vulnerable, as they are on the frontlines and disproportionately affected by COVID 19,” Dr Etienne noted. “In addition, they face income disparity, inadequate access to health services and are often subject to gender-based violence.”
She stressed that the health and well-being of the most vulnerable, including indigenous groups, must be prioritized to stop the spread of COVID-19 and to better face similar outbreaks in the future.
Dr Etienne noted that one important vulnerable group consists of people with underlying health conditions like heart disease, diabetes and obesity, who “are particularly susceptible to hospitalization, severe illness and death due to COVID-19”. Accounting for around 221 million people in the Americas, they face disruptions in treatment for their diseases because health systems are overwhelmed, she said.
She told journalists: “It is only by ensuring human rights for all when all peoples have universal access to health and it’s socioeconomic determinants when we guarantee social protection for the vulnerable, and when our economic development addresses the eradication of poverty and the achievement of the sustainable development goals only then will the world be prepared to face future pandemics. But we need to begin this work now.”.
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