Tapping Global Health Care’s Greatest Resource

NEW YORK/CHICAGO – In every phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, community health workers have been indispensable. They have made diagnoses, carried out contact tracing, cared for the sick, and administered vaccinations. And they have performed all these tasks with minimal funding, supervision, and assistance.

The use of community health workers in rural health care has a long track record of success. In the 1960s, China’s “barefoot doctors” helped the country eradicate smallpox and double life expectancy. A decade later, Bangladesh partly emulated the Chinese initiative when it launched its community health worker program, which helped the country achieve a majority of the health-related Millennium Development Goals, such as bringing the diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis vaccination rate for rural children from near-zero in the 1980s to more than 90% today.

Community health workers are not doctors or nurses. They are local residents with basic medical training who help bridge the gap between health-care facilities and underserved populations. Usually, they are trained by NGOs and receive little or no compensation from their governments. In fact, few governments around the world keep records of community health workers or have a way to communicate with them.

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