In the majority of countries surveyed, the ministry health had partially or entirely reassigned staff working on non-communicable diseases to support COVID-19. The survey also revealed a widespread postponement of public screening projects (for instance, for cervical and breast cancer). This was consistent with the original recommendation by the WHO to reduce facility-based services that are not urgent and focus efforts on tackling COVID-19.
However, the primary reasons for reducing or discontinuing services were the cancellation of scheduled treatments, the reduced availability of public transport, and the limited number of staff available to facilitate such treatments since most of them had been reassigned to support the fight against COVID-19. The survey revealed a correlation between the evolution of COVID-19 in a country and the number of disruptions to treatments for non-communicable diseases. As the coronavirus evolves from sporadic transmissions to community transmissions, health services (as well as critical financial services like credit unions) become more disrupted.
In the near future, the public health sector will face two significant challenges. The first will be the mental and physical exhaustion of the healthcare staff and strained hospital infrastructure. The second challenge will be the increasing backlog of healthcare procedures. Many people who need treatment have not been visiting hospitals since the advent of COVID-19. This has mainly been because of the stigma associated with being a COVID-19 victim. The fear or inability of high-risk patients to see a doctor is delaying crucial cancer procedures and disrupting the management of chronic diseases. Since the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, consultations have reduced among specialists and general practitioners. In addition, containment measures, compounded by the poor state of the economy, will undoubtedly give rise to mental health issues (such as depression and anxiety), and physical health issues (such as unbalanced nutrition and weight gain).
The healthcare sector provides essential services such as testing, nutrition services, immunization, and maternal as well as antenatal care. These services benefit the most vulnerable people in the community. The advent of COVID-19 has negatively impacted the provision of these services since most public health efforts have been redirected towards preventing its spread. The suspension of mass vaccination programs by WHO’s Strategic Advisory Group of Experts on Immunization in March 2020, has delayed immunization projects in various regions. In some regions, immunization projects have been delayed due to insufficient shipments caused by the reduction of cargo flights and cancellation of flights. If this trend continues, countries that need essential vaccines are likely to deplete their stock. Immunization outreach projects have also been impacted due to the restricted movement of people. This may lead to an increase in diseases such as human papillomavirus, yellow fever, polio, and measles, which will negatively affect the recent gains in reducing child mortality. Over 13 million children globally have not received vaccinations for different diseases since the pandemic began.
There is an increasing number of COVID-19 patients who continue to occupy isolation centers and public hospitals. The vast numbers of patients are likely to overwhelm these facilities. Consequently, healthcare centers will have a hard time coping with the numbers. This implies that these healthcare facilities will fall short of providing essential services, especially non-communicable disease treatments.