Strategic link between health and the economy

Dr. Christopher Tufton

Gleaner Archive with text from the speech given at the 59th Directing Council, 73rd Session of the Regional Committee of WHO for the Americas (side event), where Jamaica acted as President of the Council – September 25, 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic has placed a tremendous burden on health infrastructure globally, resulting in a huge cost of lives lost, social displacement, mental-health challenges and economic fallout. Approximately 20 per cent of persons require hospitalisation and maybe five per cent require high-dependency care.

With over 200 million confirmed cases and over four million deaths, it is clear that the number of admissions has stressed health systems across the world. Many who are not ill enough to be hospitalised are sick at home. With a rapidly spreading infection, there is a clear impact on the workforce.

As the numbers soar, there is no question in our minds that preventative measures had to be put in place. The measures to address the disease prevents social interaction and the conducting of businesses in the normal way.

It was clear that businesses that depended on social interactions would suffer the most and other businesses that could not adapt would also suffer. In a region that depends heavily on tourism, and in countries where economies depend on service industries, there is bound to be economic fallout. The pandemic has resulted in a health crisis, a social crisis and an economic crisis.

For many developing countries, COVID-19 has affected and will continue to affect the debt burden, investments, human capital and labour market participation as well as global trade and supply linkages.


It is important to understand how the pandemic has affected the economy. COVID-19 has led to a global recession which has been described as the ‘deepest’ since the end of World War II. In 2020, the global economy which was forecasted to grow by 3.4 per cent contracted by 3.5 per cent

Despite this, the world economy, according to the World Bank, “is poised to stage its most robust post-recession recovery in the last 80 years, in 2021. But the rebound is expected to be uneven across countries, as major economies look set to register strong growth even as many developing economies lag behind.”

In addition to this, Latin America and the Caribbean are characterised by a high dependence on imports of raw materials, medicines, and other health technologies from other regions. ECLAC estimates that in 2018, only four per cent of a Latin American and Caribbean series of health products imports came from the subregion itself.

This forecast of a vastly different recovery process for developed and developing countries will result in many countries in our region grappling with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic for a very long time.


Figures from the Planning Institute of Jamaica (PIOJ) show that for Fiscal Year 2020/21, from April 2020 to March 2021, Jamaica’s real GDP contracted by an estimated 11.0%. Most industries have been affected due to reductions in the demand and supply of goods and services.

The largest contractions were recorded in the high-contact industries, such as hotels and restaurants (down 65.5 per cent), ‘other service industries’, which include recreation, entertainment & sporting activities (down 28.2 per cent), and transport, storage & communication (down 13.6 per cent).


The contraction in economic activities has affected employment. According to the PIOJ, there was an 11.9 per cent reduction in employment in July 2020 relative to January 2020. The global economic crisis of 2008 led to a 7.7 per cent decline in employment over a three-year period. The impacts of COVID-19 are obviously much worse.


These developments are expected to lead to increases in poverty and inequality. The social challenges experienced as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic are far-reaching, spanning several sectors. Service disruptions are apparent in service delivery in education, health, assistance to the poor and in programme delivery.


The road to economic recovery will be determined by how quickly the public-health system can reduce the threat of COVID-19 disease to the economy through effective preventative measures such as behaviour change and vaccinations, and adapt to the increasing demand on the health sector by increasing resources to manage COVID-19 cases, such that it does not affect the delivery of routine health services.

While public education and vaccination campaigns are ongoing, behaviour change and vaccination are largely dependent on several factors that are outside our immediate control and may take time to achieve, especially with emerging variants and increasing “COVID fatigue”. Governments must recognise that increasing capacity must proceed hand in hand with increasing the pace of vaccinations.

As the health system must learn to accommodate COVID-19, so, also, must the business sector. Several factors will affect recovery. The ability of firms and workers to pivot, to implement policies to stem the spread of the infection in the workplace, and to apply innovations to allow businesses to continue, despite COVID, will make a difference in our recovery efforts.

“Health in All Policies” must now not only be a cliché that we call upon when convenient, it must become a way of life. Businesses must now build into their operation plans attention to Infection Prevention & Control, emergency response plans and contingency plans for health emergencies. The promotion of healthy lifestyle and the implementation of workplace policies that ensure a healthy workforce will contribute to a stable workforce.

While some countries in our region have started the recovery process, the process remains fragile, given new variants and the level of debt, which restrict the level of fiscal intervention. The economic outlook is at best precarious.

Countries cannot afford to continue to open up and shut down as the number of cases increase or decrease. The health sector must have the flexibility to adjust to the new demand while, at the same time, working to decrease demand for health services through prevention.

Sustained and increased public financing in health will be required to support additional resources that are needed. Economic recovery is dependent on this.

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