Silent killerExclusive focus on Covid-19 has led to the neglect of non-communicable and infectious diseases.
When the Omicron variant of Covid-19 was first detected in South Africa, governments worldwide resorted to a series of measures in their endeavours to contain the virus. And such efforts have been familiar with every successive wave, focusing on one particular issue; protecting the health system from being completely overwhelmed. Apart from the decimation of economies, the lasting impact has been on health. Given the gravity of the crisis, the management of Covid has been of the utmost priority for the authorities. Still, this prioritisation has come at the cost of ignoring non-communicable and other infectious diseases.
Whether voluntarily or induced through the series of lockdowns, deferments of medical appointments have taken a toll on people’s health. And with the resources– both financial and human—stretched to breaking point, there is little doubt that regular health programmes have been adversely affected. People engaged in vaccinating children against hepatitis B, tuberculosis or other serious ailments were re-deployed to make up for the gaps in immunising people against Covid. This drive has virtually stalled over the last two years. The implications of this crisis may not be apparent now, but sadly, the impact of these debilitating effects will be more apparent soon unless the government acts on it with immediate effect.
During the first year of the ongoing pandemic, in 2020, the government decided to slash the budget for the treatment of non-communicable diseases by more than two-thirds compared to the amount allocated in 2019. Only Rs40 million was set aside compared to Rs135 million previously despite several studies showing that the risk posed by non-communicable diseases is far higher than from communicable diseases. The impact of the budget cut was undoubtedly felt most by those at the bottom of the economic pyramid. Instead of increasing the healthcare budget, the administration, in its infinite wisdom, decided that re-deploying financial resources within health care would help avoid an imminent catastrophe.
According to the World Health Organisation, in 2019 before the Covid-19 pandemic, non-communicable diseases such as heart disease, stroke, chronic lung disease and cancer accounted for almost 74 percent of deaths globally. Of the top 10 causes of death, seven of the leading causes of death in 2019 were non-communicable diseases. This situation has been further exacerbated, particularly in Nepal, which lacks the provisions of universal health care as most people have to rely on the services provided by private hospitals and care centres. And people often deferring medical appointments for fear of contracting the dreaded virus has intensified a silent but lethal crisis.
Numerous other programmes have been affected, particularly concerning maternal health, child health and nutrition, and the less talked about mental health issues. Data shows that since the pandemic, there has been a steady rise in the number of suicide cases as well—the act considered a taboo isn’t widely discussed. Still, suicide is a significant indicator of mental health problems prevalent in Nepal. Perhaps the government’s priorities are misdirected, and if they remain complacent about the burgeoning crisis concerning other communicable and non-communicable diseases, it could be that we’re sitting on a ticking time bomb.