The pandemic revealed many cracks in health systems, both globally and within countries. It exposed flaws and inequities that contribute to health disparities, with people of color and poor communities bearing the greatest disease burden.

“When you live in poverty, you fight for your survival, even in the absence of a pandemic,” said Maria Rebollo, team lead for elimination of NTDs with the WHO Regional Office for Africa, speaking at a Task Force virtual meeting in April. “Here in Brazzaville, Congo, we’ve been in lockdown for one month…As we promote public health measures to protect people, we need to think about the special needs of people we are trying to serve.”


Photo caption: COVID-19 testing in Malaysia. Courtesy of Malaysia FETP.

Throughout the pandemic, The Task Force focused a series of its virtual “Global Health Compassion Rounds” on COVID-19 to highlight the roles of compassion and equity in global health, two of our core organizational values. Organized by our Focus Area for Compassion and Ethics (FACE) and the Global Learning Laboratory for Quality UHC at the World Health Organization, the Compassion Rounds involved practitioners from around the world.

Maria Rebollo, WHO NTD lead in Brazzaville, speaks in April 2020 about impact of COVID-19

“Global distribution of COVID-19 vaccines represents one of the most complex and urgent challenges for health equity ever faced by our global community,” said David Addiss, FACE director. “Marginalized groups and people living in poverty are typically left behind when equity is not explicitly built into the design and management of global health programs.”

In partnership with colleagues at Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health, FACE developed a framework for global stakeholders to guide decisions regarding vaccine allocation and to track the outcomes of these decisions in terms of equitable distribution and coverage. As an additional resource targeting structural racism in adverse health outcomes, FACE showcased organizations doing significant work to inform policies to improve the “social determinants of health,” the non-biological conditions which shape an individual’s well-being.

Task Force Staff on Racial Equity & Health

The events of 2020 called for us to honor not only our values of equity, compassion, and collaboration, but to uphold our fourth core value: stewardship of the resources entrusted by our donors. With the disruption to routine program work, we collaborated with our largest donors to adapt programs in keeping with their vision. We also hosted our first virtual run to engage Task Force constituents in promoting racial and health equity. From Seattle, Washington, to Washington, DC, 112 participants collectively covered nearly 2,000 miles and raised nearly $7,000 for Black Lives Matter and a clinic serving refugees and others hard-hit by COVID-19 in our home base of Atlanta.

COVID-19 pushed health issues and disparities to the forefront of world attention, and some see this as a moment of opportunity. Neglected tropical diseases (NTDs), for example, are diseases of poverty and therefore can serve as indicators. Where NTDs are found, there is a need to strengthen health systems. Likewise, the disparate toll of COVID-19 shines a spotlight on where changes are needed so that all people have equitable access to health services. If we act on them, the devastating lessons of 2020 could move us closer to a time when everyone has the opportunity to live the healthiest life possible, no matter who they are or where they live.

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