What role can health policy and systems research play in supporting responses to COVID-19 that strengthen socially just health systems?
To say that we live in turbulent times is a massive understatement. COVID-19 ruthlessly exposes the fault lines of health services and systems, and the responses put in place to prevent its spread or mitigate its effects may affect people more than the actual infection. The outbreak in Wuhan quickly grew to a pandemic that has affected countries and regions all over the world in many, and as of yet, little understood ways. This is a global infectious disease outbreak of a scale not seen since the Spanish Flu. For many countries, it is an extreme stress test of the health system and of society at large. All over the world, people, patients, providers, health service managers, health and other sectoral policymakers and politicians, are dealing with high levels of uncertainty and severe challenges to the resilience of their systems. The governance not only of health, at national and global levels, but also of trade, communication and globalization itself is under scrutiny. The virus exposes, yet again, the structural determinants that lead to health inequalities (Shadmi et al., 2020), including racism and colonial legacies. Many see this as a key moment of reckoning, nationally and globally: the pandemic and its responses have precipitated unprecedented economic, social and health crises that may shape the decades ahead. At the same time, the role of health systems in responding to COVID-19 and the need to (re-)invest in these systems through the state offers transformative opportunities.
In the light of this, we outline how health policy and systems research (HPSR) can both address current short-term challenges, and support the system transformations needed to strengthen people-centred and equitable health systems over the long term. The HPSR community has responded to the COVID-19 pandemic quickly, following the wave of publications on epidemiological and clinical aspects of the disease. Initial studies have included those describing the capacity of hospitals, intensive care units and first line health services required to respond to the disease, and those reporting specific experiences at community and local levels, including the denial of care and the inequitable effects of disease control measures.
We consider, first, key dimensions of the overall approach of HPSR to frame the further work needed, and second, in an annex, we suggest an initial categorization and listing of possible research topics. We present these ideas to prompt wider reflection—and we conclude by proposing ways of engaging further with these ideas, acknowledging the fast-changing nature of the pandemic and the need to review research priorities regularly.
Lucy Gilson, Bruno Marchal, Irene Ayepong, Edwine Barasa, Jean-Paul Dossou, Asha George, Ryan Guinaran, Daniel Maceira, Sassy Molyneux, N S Prashanth, Helen Schneider, Yusra Shawar, Jeremy R Shiffman, Kabir Sheikh, Neil Spicer, Sara Van Belle, Eleanor Whyle, What role can health policy and systems research play in supporting responses to COVID-19 that strengthen socially just health systems?, Health Policy and Planning, Volume 35, Issue 9, November 2020, Pages 1231–1236, https://doi.org/10.1093/heapol/czaa112