Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) Director, Dr. Carissa Etienne, has underscored the need for member countries to safeguard the welfare of their most vulnerable populations in order to slow the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19) and place the region on a path to recovery.

Among the most vulnerable groups, she noted, are women and individuals with underlying health conditions.

Dr. Etienne was addressing a COVID-19 digital media briefing on Tuesday (May 19), where she lamented the “startling” 14 per cent increase in confirmed cases and deaths across the Americas within the last week.

As at May 18, more than two million cases and over 121,000 deaths were reported. The PAHO Director said that as the pandemic’s curve flattens or falls in other parts of the world “the virus is surging across our region”.

“We’re 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,” she pointed out.

Of concern, she said, are persons with underlying health conditions, noting that they are particularly susceptible to severe illness and death.

The Director pointed out that nearly 221 million people across the Americas are at increased risk because they have underlying health conditions, including non-communicable diseases (NCD) such as cardiovascular diseases, obesity and diabetes.

“These groups are not only vulnerable to the virus but will face disruptions in treatment and care for otherwise manageable diseases, due to the overwhelming of health systems,” she contended.

“Far too often, we fail to prioritise the health and well-being of the most vulnerable among us. This must change, if we want to stop the spread of COVID-19 and, at the same time, be ready to face future pandemics,” she noted.

Dr. Etienne said it is imperative to improve access to the public health measures that are effective, emphasising that “we need to implement them aggressively, especially in areas with a higher risk of transmission”.

Additionally, she said all countries must strengthen health system capacity to better serve vulnerable communities, by establishing mechanisms that support universal access to health, pooling of resources with the private and not-for-profit sector interests, and setting up emergency arrangements that add hospital capacity where most needed.

“These measures will not only improve access to health services but will lay the groundwork for faster more equitable delivery of health innovations, including new tests, treatments and a future vaccine for COVID-19,” she pointed out.

Dr. Etienne further cited the need for strong social and economic safeguards for groups such as women, who, she said, are adversely impacted by health crises, adding that “this pandemic has been no different”.

“Women in our region face income disparity, lack of adequate access to health services, and are often subject to gender-based violence. In addition, women make up 70 per cent of the health workforce in the Americas, so that is to say that they are on the front lines of COVID-19 and are disproportionately affected,” she said.

Dr. Etienne noted that consequent on schools being closed, unemployment rising and economic activity slowing down, “many are struggling to make ends meet during the pandemic”.

The Director contended that the region has “good examples” of successful social protection programmes, and “we should be using them extensively at this unprecedented time”.