Pakistan’s drive to restore essential health services during COVID-19

Even in the wealthiest parts of the world, countries have been under pressure to keep their health systems well-organized and prepared to maintain essential health services for everyone as COVID-19 rages on.

While Pakistan has demonstrated a strong resolve to deliver on the promise of health for all through universal health coverage (UHC), the country’s health system is under immense strain from COVID-19.

Reinstating essential health services for its whole population is one of Government’s most urgent challenges. Many services for illnesses that are unrelated to COVID-19 have stopped, with multiple primary health care services on hold. Community health workers, vaccinators, midwives and family welfare assistants are unable to perform outreach services. The pandemic is limiting women’s access to life-saving maternal and newborn health services. Lockdowns and travel restrictions disrupt regular supply chains of essential medicines and health products, and creates a gap in the stock of essential vaccines, leading to the disruption of immunization services. This results in another major threat: future outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases, a fear that is generating global concern.

Strengthening primary health care

Pakistan, with support from WHO, is working to strengthen basic primary health care. This will help ensure that the population receives the services they need during the pandemic, as close as possible to the communities in which they live. Ultimately, it will contribute to progress towards achieving UHC. This builds on WHO’s earlier assistance to expand primary health care and engage citizens in health policy dialogue. Over the last two years, this effort has gained momentum through UHC Partnership, with funding from the European Union, the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, Irish Aid, the Government of Japan, the French Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs, the UK Department for International Development and Belgium.

As part of the overall WHO response to COVID-19, the UHC Partnership, along with a host of partners such as the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV and AIDS (UNAIDS), World Bank and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), have collaborated to prepare an action plan to support the Government in ensuring the continuity of essential diagnostic, treatment and prevention services during the COVID-19 response, while protecting the safety and wellbeing of the health workforce and patients. The plan draws upon the latest WHO operational guidance for maintaining essential health services during the COVID-19 outbreak and has become a significant pillar of Pakistan’s COVID-19 Preparedness and Response plan.

WHO also supported the development of the National Health Vision 2025 and provincial health sector strategies and plans.

Reaching communities

WHO and UNICEF have worked jointly to revitalize Pakistan’s pioneering community health worker programme, the ‘Lady Health Workers’. The process, which originated in 1994, created a new cadre of female health workers in the Pakistan health system to address unmet health needs of rural populations and informal settlers.

Meanwhile, in 12 districts across the country, WHO is also helping the Government to implement the Family Practice programme. The approach increases households’ access to health care through family practice teams led by a family physician. By working in communities, these groups of health care providers have the best knowledge of the health and life conditions of families, and can therefore support them more effectively with preventive interventions.

To further reach communities, WHO, through the UHC Partnership is also supporting a range of other projects such as risk communication and community engagement as part of the national response to COVID-19.

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