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World Bank, IMF step up support for Southeast Asia’s health systems

Health systems in many low- and middle-income countries across Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Latin America are strained as they cope with the COVID-19 pandemic. Many nations lack the medical staff, equipment and capacities necessary to mitigate the crisis. The risks posed are especially high for hundreds of millions of people who live in poverty or have only recently emerged from it.

While governments and corporations are partnering to strengthen health systems, multinational organizations are also stepping in with financial support. The World Bank expects to provide support in as many as 100 countries.

In Southeast Asia, developing economies face severe health and economic shocks. World Bank funds have already been approved to the Philippines, Cambodia and Laos to help meet urgent health needs and bolster preparedness. Funding will support purchases of personal protective equipment (PPE), antivirals, antibiotics and essential medicines, and medical supplies such as intensive care equipment, ventilators, cardiac monitors, x-ray machines, laboratory equipment and test kits. In addition, funds will support logistics and supply chains to ensure that equipment reaches frontline health facilities.

Indonesia is the first country in the region to issue global bonds as a response to the pandemic. The Jakarta Post described this issuance as “one of the most visionary measures stipulated in regulation.” Finance Minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati stated that “extraordinary circumstances require extraordinary measures,” as the government deals with both the pandemic and funding crisis. The World Bank is also considering the pandemic bond as one of its financing options. Additionally, the United States provided Indonesia with $2.3 million in emergency assistance through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) that will “strengthen lab capacity, accelerate testing, and improve disease tracking at the community level. It will also bolster risk communications to provide the public with reliable, verifiable information to keep everyone informed about how to protect themselves and each other,” according the U.S. embassy in Jakarta.

The World Bank and its partner organizations expect to spend as much as $160 billion over the next 15 months to help countries strengthen health systems, protect the poor and vulnerable, and bolster economic recovery. It is also reaching out to suppliers on behalf of governments to get medical equipment and supplies to where they are needed most urgently throughout the global emergency.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) is increasing its lending capacity, which today exceeds $1 trillion, to finance health measures in low-income countries, ease liquidity constraints, protect vulnerable populations and avoid unnecessary insolvencies. The IMF says more than 100 countries are asking for emergency financing.

At their annual spring meetings, held virtually on April 14-17, both institutions said their first priority is to strengthen country health surveillance and response systems to contain the spread of this and future outbreaks. They are also focused on bolstering social safety nets and creating conditions for a sustainable and inclusive economic recovery. The G-20 member countries agreed to suspend debt service obligations, which will free up financial resources for the poorest countries.

This health care crisis has the potential to erase years of health and development gains in many countries. Some multilateral organizations are partnering with governments and companies to deploy resources toward public health interventions, nutrition, education and social protection against the immediate adverse effects of the shocks. This support is welcome in our region, and along with medical innovation, is an important piece of the COVID-19 recovery puzzle.

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