UNICEF MENA Regional Director's Intervention

ESCWA Webinar on Primary Health Care and ECWA Report on Sustainable Development

06 July 2020

Delivered in Arabic

(Semi-Verbatim translation)

6 July 2020


Thank you for the opportunity to be with you all today.

The COVID-19 response began as a Public Health Emergency response demonstrating the importance of the health system. 

Primary Health Care is an effective investment with high returns. Through the PHC system, most safe births happen, children get immunized and their nutrition status checked. It is where the first line of psychosocial support can be given including for children victims of violence, where families can get advice to take care of their children, including safe hygiene practices and where delays in development can be diagnosed early on for timely interventions.

This is why UNICEF, WHO and UNFPA have joined hands to strengthen and support PHC systems around the region. Dr. Ahmad and I had the honour to discuss this with some of you – Excellencies Ministers of Health- last year at the EMRO Regional Committee Meeting.

Though the number of COVID-19 infections among children has been low, the pandemic is having a heavy toll on children.  During the first three months of the pandemic, the region saw a significant decline in the utilization of essential health and nutrition services for children. This was a result of restrictions on movements including lockdowns and curfews, diverting of PHC workforce’s efforts to COVID response and fear of communities to contract the virus if they go to health facilities. If this happens, it would undo progress made in child survival in the past two decades.

If this decline in utilization continues, we estimate that an additional 51,00 children under the age of five might die by the end of the year. This is an increase of 40 per cent in comparison with pre-COVID.  If this happens, it would take the region back to where it was 20 years ago, wiping up progress made in child survival.

Precautionary measures like social distancing have significantly reduced face-to-face social interactions and had psychological impact on young people.  

But it’s not too late and the time to act is now.

Allow me to present a few recommendations.

First, restore communities’ trust in the health system for care seeking including through public communication using the media and digital platforms and community engagement through opinion leaders and community structures.

Second, enhance the confidence and effectiveness of our frontline primary health care health workers through providing personal protective equipment and training on infection prevention and control.

Third, empower PHC service providers with skills to provide psychological first aid and engage with young people’s networks to promote psychosocial wellbeing and access to self-help, information online and specialized help services

Finally, every effort should be made to ‘ring-fence’ governments budgets for essential PHC services exploring additional resources through the private sector, foundations and philanthropists.

Together, we can support tens of thousands of children to survive and be healthy across our region.