Five ways coronavirus could impact the future of global health

For the global health community, the implications resulting from COVID-19 could be immense.

  • 5 May 2020
  • 4 min read
  • by Gavi Staff


The novel coronavirus pandemic represents the biggest threat to lives, livelihoods and economies since the Second World War (WWII). It is already rapidly reshaping societies and economies, changing the way people interact, the way they work and the fabrics of their lives.

In April this year, one third of the global population had its free-movement in some way restricted. The wide-ranging impact of the virus has starkly revealed how interconnected the world is. 

Here are five ways the big picture for global health will be different as a result of COVID-19.

1. Freedom of movement of people and goods could be restricted

The pandemic has set the processes of globalisation into reverse. The aviation industry has been devastated, global trade may fall by as much as a third, and new barriers to freedom of movement including closed borders and quarantine requirements are now almost universal across the globe

Travelling by air may never be the same, and airlines are unlikely to be able to sell seats directly next to each other for some time. 

People - including doctors, health care workers and NGO staff - may be less able to travel as freely as before, and this could hamper efforts to bolster global health. 

2. It could lead to more outbreaks of other infectious diseases

With global supply chains under pressure, the transport industry suffering, and strict restrictions on movement, it has already become more difficult to get healthcare supplies to where they are needed. And the huge global demand for COVID-19 test kits, and the chemical reagents needed to make them, now threatens to create shortages of tests for other infectious diseases, which could undermine global disease surveillance.

Transport issues and logistical barriers are also having an impact on the supply of some existing vaccines, which threatens to disrupt routine immunisation programmes. This could lead to drops in immunisation coverage that sets countries back decades.

The World Health Organization has warned that the number of deaths from malaria in sub-Saharan Africa could double this year, if health care systems designed to treat malaria are suspended in favour of COVID-19 programmes.

3. The private sector may see a permanent shift towards stakeholder capitalism

Since it began, this coronavirus has caused a global collapse in markets, skyrocketing unemployment, radical shifts in business models and ways of working, and a level of government intervention in economies that has not been seen for decades.

The pandemic has accelerated the need for a new model for capitalism, moving beyond shareholder value at all costs towards focussing more on a broader set of stakeholders including employees, customers, communities, and broader society.

We are seeing this as the private sector steps up to assist with the crisis, in new partnerships for vaccines and treatments, and even in new ways of monitoring how companies are responding to the crisis. The trend towards stakeholder capitalism was accelerating before the crisis, with high profile groups such as the Business Roundtable, the World Economic Forum, and powerful CEOs of large investment firms promoting the idea.  

As the pandemic progresses, how companies conduct themselves towards their broader set of stakeholders may be a significant contributor to their prospects in recovery.

4. Global health innovation could accelerate

With the global focus on defeating COVID-19, one possible silver lining is a boost to technology and innovation directed at global public health. There are currently an unprecedented number of academic, private and public collaborations, partnerships and initiatives all directed at the issue of developing technologies that can help with the pandemic and help accelerate the development of a vaccine. Bill Gates writes that three innovations in particular will see accelerated progress: 

  1. The development of mRNA vaccines that use genetic code to give cells instructions for how to mount an immune response.
  2. Diagnostics and testing.
  3. Antiviral drugs, which has been an underinvested branch of science.

This acceleration of interest and engagement in solving global health problems could provide a new permanent infrastructure that will provide major benefits to future generations.

5. Immunisation efforts could be strengthened as a COVID-19 vaccine is developed and deployed

The coronavirus pandemic is proof, if any more were needed, that vaccination is critical to global security. Getting our economies and societies working again requires everyone to be safe from COVID-19 and an effective and widely distributed vaccine will be a critical contributor to this.

The progress, collaboration, partnerships and information that is generated could in the long-term strengthen support for existing vaccination programmes. At the same time, there is a risk that vaccination programmes that are not directly COVID-19-related will suffer as attention and resources are siphoned into novel coronavirus efforts.

These are immensely challenging times for people, communities and countries all over the world. In the midst of the crisis it can be difficult to see a path forward. But with this pandemic there are opportunities for some positive outcomes for global health, the most important being that we may be much, much better prepared next time.