Investments in global health programs pay off in pandemic response

Investments in global health programs pay off in pandemic response
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The world’s experts are becoming a super force to defeat the COVID-19 pandemic: research scientists are digging deep and working fast to come up with treatments and vaccines; manufacturers are switching gears to make masks and ventilators; doctors and nurses are coming out of retirement to address the swell of critical patients; and field hospitals are popping up in unlikely places.

There are teams responding on the ground globally that are knowledgeable, already embedded and able to take off at a sprint. Funded by individuals, philanthropies, foundations, corporations and especially governments, including the U.S., they are the people who implement global health programs.

Global health programs, mainly implemented by international NGOs, have been working in high-risk countries for years. They make a difference in outbreaks. According to a 2018 study in the “International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health,” NGOs were an important factor in saving lives during the 2014 Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone, providing medical supplies and essential health services and educating local leaders and communities. They have been working steadily on pandemic preparedness and prevention behind the scenes ever since.


The best way to prepare for a pandemic is to strengthen existing health systems by working as trusted advisors to governments, donors, private-sector entities and local health leaders. International NGOs and global health organizations shore up the people, processes and infrastructure that provide medical products and services, helping them develop the expertise to detect disease outbreaks locally and prevent them from spreading globally.

These investments work. The best outbreak is the one you never hear about; the one that doesn’t even become an epidemic, let alone a pandemic. There are many outbreaks that never make major media headlines. The Nigerian Field Epidemiology Training Program, a CDC-based activity, had been in the country to help stem the transmission of HIV. The program provided contact tracing to catch and isolate Ebola cases in 2014, which was critical to containing the outbreak. Global health programs jumped in to help Madagascar boost vaccine distribution to quell a measles outbreak last year, building on work already in progress to improve health services in rural areas.

These same NGOs are now being tapped to respond to COVID-19. USAID-funded programs have been helping health facilities and workers take stronger infection prevention and control measures and firming up vital medical supply chains so that these workers have access to medicines and protective gear. Any vaccine or treatment that we develop for the coronavirus will need to use these same response networks. When the dust settles, NGOs will still be there, helping countries recover and addressing gaps exposed by the crisis. 

This pandemic is a test of our work and the investments of donors like the U.S. government. But despite increasingly urgent warnings from public health experts, NGOs and donors, these structures and investments have been under attack. President TrumpDonald TrumpTrump DOJ demanded metadata on 73 phone numbers and 36 email addresses, Apple says Putin says he's optimistic about working with Biden ahead of planned meeting Biden meets Queen Elizabeth for first time as president MORE eliminated the position of National Security Council Directorate for Global Health Security and Biodefense in 2018. Experts say the unit, which was dedicated specifically to preparing for pandemics and marshaling resources to fight one, would have been able to assess the COVID-19 threat more quickly and provided a more effective and focused response. Foreign aid has been threatened in recent administration budgets, including President Trump’s suspension of funding to the World Health Organization (WHO).

There is no evidence that cutting programs and funds improves our collective safety or contributes to global prosperity. In fact, preparedness is remarkably cost-effective. According to a Wellcome Trust analysis, deadly infectious disease outbreaks cost the world some $60 billion per year, while having systems in place to prevent them would cost only $5 billion.

The current pandemic demands that we dig deep to fund our current response, both domestic and internationally. While the current scenario is novel to many of us, NGOs are a reliable tool at many governments’ disposal and one upon which many lives depend. We must continue to fund the work that is addressing our current crisis — and that will help prevent others. 

Marian W. Wentworth is president and CEO of Management Sciences for Health, a global nonprofit that works side-by-side with leaders in low- and middle-income countries to build strong, equitable and sustainable health systems that save lives and improve health outcomes.