Covid-19 is not the only threat to millions of lives

Covid-19 is not the only threat to millions of lives

We are experiencing the biggest threat to the fabric of our society in generations. For billions, their lives are in danger, their livelihoods are at risk, and their daily routines have been upended. The world economy has ground to a halt.

People are resilient. Eventually, we will beat this pandemic, but at what cost? The costs are not only financial nor immediate, but also long-term.

While over-stretched health systems are dealing with Covid-19, other diseases will re-emerge. Parasites and viruses are smart and adaptable. Like a pressure cooker, when you release the lid, diseases will spread.

With the lockdown of low and middle-income countries across the world, what will happen to the hundreds and millions of people who harbour other communicable diseases that may now go undiagnosed or untreated?

As when your house is burning down and you focus on putting out the fire, tackling Covid-19 must be an immediate priority. Countries and businesses have moved fast to find new preventive tools and treatments to stop the epidemic. Social distancing measures have been put in place to flatten the curve and trillions of dollars are being committed to support people's livelihoods. These measures are necessary. However, we cannot afford to ignore other killer diseases, such as malaria. The Covid-19 pandemic is devastating by itself but its negative impact will redouble if the response leads to the disruption of health services to combat other life-threatening diseases.

Take malaria for example. Here in Asia, countries are on a path towards eliminating the disease by 2030 or sooner. Just in the last 8 years, malaria cases and mortality rates have dropped by 50% and 80% respectively. Many countries in Asia have been close to beating malaria before. In 1963, Sri Lanka only had 17 cases but then priorities shifted and malaria control activities were reduced. By 1969, the number of yearly cases had jumped to over half a million. It took Sri Lanka nearly 50 years to get to zero. Imagine the savings in terms of human life and money if the country had instead finished the job in 1963.

There is no dichotomy between addressing Covid-19 and malaria.

Countries and funders have invested billions in HIV, tuberculosis and malaria programmes in the global south. Beyond financing prevention and treatment, the funds have strengthened supply chains, surveillance systems and human resource capacity. For example, many countries now have a cadre of community health workers who test and treat people for malaria. If given the right protocols, they can form a network for surveillance and response to Covid-19. Meanwhile, in the countries surrounding the Mekong region, malaria programmes are taking place across borders with countries sharing health data and learning from each other. They know that to root out any disease we need to work together and embrace regional collaboration. This is what we need to defeat Covid-19 and to prevent future pandemics.

Today is World Malaria Day. It's a day for acknowledging how far we have reached in the fight against malaria, and for renewing our resolve to beat this disease. What does that mean in the current context?

For most of us, the present is no longer recognisable, which makes it difficult to imagine our future. But there is a saying that amid crisis lies great opportunity. Let's use this moment to recognise that access to health is at the very core of our society. If we neglect funding and strengthening health systems; if we pretend that every nation is an island; and if we fail to achieve universal health coverage, we do so at our own peril. If there was ever a wake-up call, this is it.

The fight against malaria in Asia shows us what is possible when we all work together.

Christoph Benn, MD, is Director for Global Health Diplomacy at the Joep Lange Institute and M2030 Champions Council Member; Wit Soontaranun, PhD, is director of the Dhanin Tawee Chearavanont Foundation.

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