Robust health systems to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic

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Women with medicine jars

© Enabel/Sam Deckers

The COVID-19 pandemic is sorely testing the health systems of developing countries. Under normal circumstances, they often already suffer from a lack of adequate staff, equipment and funding. In many cases, they are unable to cope with an influx of COVID-19 patients.

But other necessary actions are not always easy to carry out either: the fast identification and isolation of confirmed cases, the monitoring and quarantine of contacts, and clear communication around precautionary measures.

People inspect arriving goods

Belgium's primary objective is to meet immediate needs in the partner countries.
© Enabel

Immediate needs and robust healthcare

The Belgian Development Cooperation therefore aims to ensure that the national health systems in the countries where it is active are supported as well as possible. This can be done by alleviating the immediate needs. For example, the Belgian development agency (Enabel) has supplied face masks to a number of partner countries, in addition to hand-washing kits, ambulances and test kits for laboratories. It supported the Nigerien authorities in co-ordinating a national response plan.

But the health systems themselves will also be supported. This has always been the approach of the Belgian Development Co-operation: not to focus on specific diseases, but to help build robust health systems that are able to meet all health challenges themselves.

Teacher teaches children to wash hands

Proper hygiene is not possible without access to clean water. On the photo: a project by Enabel in Tanzania.
© Enabel/Sala Lewis​

Broader context

Moreover, Belgium is increasingly placing healthcare within a broader context. Women and girls, for example, are receiving extra attention. They have – including during a pandemic – a high need for services around ‘sexual and reproductive health and rights’ (SRHR): family planning, monitoring of pregnancy and abortion. They are also often victims of sexual violence.

The One Health concept expresses the fact that people's health is closely intertwined with that of animals and nature in general. Healthcare must therefore also take into account interactions with the living environment.

Nutrition is also essential for good health. A malnourished person can be less resistant to infectious diseases. But the COVID-19 pandemic makes it even more difficult for many vulnerable people to get food.

Hand hygiene is an effective measure for preventing the spread of a pandemic. This is why proper healthcare cannot be separated from easy access to clean water and sanitary facilities.

Finally, social protection can help ensure that people have guaranteed access to healthcare. This protection can take the form of various income allowances and credits.

Research and international coherence

Belgium also aims to invest in all kinds of research, such as towards a vaccine against COVID-19 and rapid diagnostic kits. Our country has a great deal of expertise in this area, both in academic institutions and at companies.

Belgium also donated 5 million euros to the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI): a platform of private and public actors working together to speed up the development of vaccines. It is essential that any vaccine is available to everyone.

In all its actions, Belgium is working in tandem with the international community: the World Health Organisation (WHO) for healthcare and the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Aid (OCHA) for humanitarian aid. Only a co-ordinated approach can be sufficiently effective at containing the current pandemic. The coherence between development, humanitarian aid and peace is also a focus of attention.