Self-care: A Critical Answer to COVID-19

by Sandy Garcon, Senior Manager, Advocacy PSI

Global health experts from around the world are joining the first-ever virtual World Health Assembly (WHA) to discuss one topic – COVID-19. While the topic this year is limited to one virus it will touch on many aspects of the pandemic. We, the Self-Care Trailblazer Group, believe that one area of critical discussion is self-care – because it is certainly on the minds of billions of people around the planet.  

The term self-care can mean different things to different people. What it means in practice is that people take measures to prevent disease, promote health and cope with illness and disability with and without a health care provider. When we wear masks, physically distance, and wash our hands we are practicing self-care. Our governments are promoting self-care when they provide us with self-diagnosis guidelines to check if our symptoms match that of COVID-19 symptoms.  

The importance of self-care has never been more evident as health systems around the world are trying to treat patients with COVID-19 while not becoming overburdened. Health experts are learning what services and information can be provided with less dependency on health workers. They’re seeing that self-care is a critical answer to COVID-19 by helping protect frontline health workers, maintain access, and ensure healthcare is provided at scale.  

But self-care is not new, it is not limited to COVID-19, and it will continue after the pandemic has ended.  

Self-care can encompass many different aspects of care and is particularly effective in the field of sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) given the deeply personal nature of sexuality and reproduction and the stigma and barriers individuals can face in accessing information, products and services. Self-care in SRHR takes many forms such as drugs, devices, diagnostics, and digital health. It allows individuals to participate in their healthcare in ways that were not accessible in the past.   

Self-care is people taking PrEP to prevent HIV. Self-care occurs when a woman self-administers injectable contraception or collects an HPV sample in the privacy of her own homeAs highlighted in the WHO consolidated guideline on self-care interventions for health: sexual and reproductive health and rights, self-care is not a false choice between the healthcare worker and the individual. Self-care at its best has a role for both the individual and the health system. For example, self-care allows a woman to have the control and privacy to collect her own specimens for HPV screening for cervical cancer, but the health system is still needed to review and interpret the results and offer treatment, when necessary. Self-injected contraception and oralPrEP for HIV prevention are taken by the individual, but they require initial contact with the health system.  

These examples show how individuals can become active, empowered agents, in their own health. But, the accessibility of self-care is not up to the individual. It is dependent on the support of governments and policymakers to ensure there is deliberate integration of self-care into health policy, program, and practice. Governments around the world play an important role in promoting meaningful community engagement, creating health systems that value the preferences of communities in programs and policies, and strengthening investments in rights education to promote heath literacy and encourage individual autonomy and decision-making.  

Self-care would have been part of the future of healthcare regardless of COVID-19, but the pandemic presents an opportunity for policymakers and global health experts to create stronger health systems and public health capacity that recognizes and supports self-care as an essential part of the healthcare system. So as global health experts speak during the WHA and work in their countries to tackle the many challenges facing health care systems brought on by the pandemic, they should know that the power to prevent disease, promote health, and cope with disabilities depends on people having the ability to practice self-care.  

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