The Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator is short of billions of dollars, and the funds committed so far are skewed towards vaccines, with little for health systems. Ann Danaiya Usher reports.
Weak health systems buckling under the weight of the COVID-19 pandemic have received little support from donors in the global pandemic response. Germany, France, and Kuwait are the only countries that have earmarked parts of their contributions to the Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator (ACT-A) for health systems. Of the total US$5·8 billion contributed by donors to ACT-A so far, $3·9 billion have gone to support vaccine procurement and distribution in low-income and middle-income countries, while just 6% is reserved for health-care systems. ACT-A must raise at least $28 billion over the coming year to ensure that low-income and middle-income countries have the resources to fight the pandemic.
Global health experts warn that high-income countries are being short-sighted because the pandemic cannot be beaten without robust national health systems. “The irony is that health systems are most important for pandemic preparedness and response, but they get the least political attention or funding”, Lawrence Gostin (Georgetown University, Washington, DC, USA) told The Lancet. “Governments and donors…talk in strong terms about the importance of resilient health systems, but rarely, if ever, put their money where their mouth is”, he added.
Indeed, Germany is the only one of the top seven ACT-A donors—the others are the UK, Canada, Norway, the Gates Foundation, Saudi Arabia, and the European Commission—to have earmarked any of their ACT-A commitments for health systems.
TableACT-A funding crisis
Kevin Watkins (at Save the Children) and Adamu Isah have written disparagingly about the failure of ACT-A to mobilise resources for this pillar given that medical oxygen, so crucial in the treatment of patients with COVID-19, is scarce in low-income countries. “That’s an outright dereliction of leadership”, they said. They pointed out that even before the onset of the pandemic the lack of access to oxygen in these countries was contributing to making pneumonia the biggest global killer of children.
Leith Greenslade, who coordinates the pneumonia coalition, Every Breath Counts, says that COVID-19 and pneumonia are a double burden in countries that face a shortage of medical oxygen. She fears that the lack of focus on access to medical oxygen by ACT-A is contributing to unnecessary deaths. “Oxygen is…at the moment the only effective COVID-19 treatment available [in low-income countries]”, she told The Lancet.
Beyond oxygen and PPE, a range of issues exist that are not covered by the $9 billion health systems request, including the cost of disposal of PPE, investments in electricity grids and pipes to make oxygen functional, the shortage of health workers, training, and the added pressure on infrastructure, such as cold chains. The costs for these have not yet been included in the ACT-A call for funds.
Modelling done in late October by WHO, the Global Fund, and the World Bank on extending ACT-A to include the cost of bolstering health systems in the poorest countries to help them manage the pandemic came to $9·7 billion. The estimate took into account the protection of front-line health workers, clinical care, in-country supply chains, and data monitoring. This would “[lay] the foundation for building stronger health systems as we emerge from this crisis”, states an internal document by the three organisations.
The additional cost of this support for health systems would bring the total ACT-A shortfall for 2021 up to almost $38 billion. But this has not been added to the funding request. The third meeting of the Facilitation Council of the ACT-A in mid-December, which expressed “grave concern” about the growing inequity of access to COVID-19 tools, referred to a $28 billion funding gap.
Published: 09 January 2021
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