Every member of the international community has a role to play in building a healthier world
By Githinji Gitahi, MD, MBS
The world has never been as aligned on a common global health priority as it is now on universal health coverage. It is a global imperative for cohesive societies and economic prosperity.
A consensus has existed since 1948 that health is a human right, and the call for health for all has been a lingering voice since 1978 at Alma-Ata. But there has never been such high advocacy as there is today with the current call for universal health coverage with access to essential services for all without financial hardship.
The United Nations High Level Meeting on 23 September 2019 in New York may be the climax of this building advocacy.
Despite this celebratory moment, there remains a real fear that the political endorsements, high fives, dinners and numerous side events, will bring little change for half of the world’s population, living in Malawi, Vietnam, Somalia and other countries. This includes large numbers of people living in developed countries such as the United States who still do not have full coverage for essential health services.
As the world converges in New York this September, many issues will need to be prioritised. The UHC2030 movement, through its various multi-stakeholder constituencies and wide-ranging consultations, has identified six key areas of focus. They start with political leadership beyond health and commitment to health as a social contract.
Health is the foundation for people, communities and economies to reach their full potential – and the achievement of universal health coverage is primarily the responsibility of governments. Governments ensure that people’s health is a social contract, noting that achieving universal health coverage is essential for inclusive development, prosperity and fairness. It requires political decisions that go beyond the health sector.
Second, half the world’s population is left behind. That includes the poor, migrants, criminalised populations and women. Health is enshrined as a fundamental right of every human being. Universal health coverage is key to reducing poverty and promoting equity and social cohesion. Extending geographic coverage and reaching the most marginalised and hard-to-reach populations are essential to achieving positive health outcomes.
For real action in all communities, governments must commit to report disaggregated data for the official statistics compiled on the Sustainable Development Goals in order to capture the full spectrum of the equity dimensions of universal health coverage.
The third priority is to ensure that governments create a strong, enabling, regulatory and legal environment that responds to people’s needs and builds institutional capacity, so the rights of people and their needs are met. There is no debating the fact that governments bear this primary duty under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
The fourth call is to uphold the quality of care by building health systems that people and communities trust. That starts with primary health care as the backbone of universal health coverage. It is best achieved through creating confidence in public health systems that respond to people’s needs and deliver desired outcomes. Where private health services are required, leadership should come from the public sector.
The fifth call is for leadership through public financing and efficiency by investing more and investing better through sustainable public financing and by harmonising health investments from all players including development assistance and the private sector.
Governments must adopt ambitious investment goals for universal health coverage and make progress in mobilising domestic pooled funding towards existing targets, such as 5% of gross domestic product or the African Union’s Abuja Declaration of 15% of government expenditure. This funding should be equitable and driven by the need to reduce impoverishing and catastrophic out-of-pocket expenditures for communities.
Furthermore, development assistance for health should reduce fragmentation and strengthen national capacities for health financing.
Finally, and in line with SDG 17 on the need for partnerships – and in recognition of the fact that health can only be achieved by a whole-of-society approach – countries should take active steps to engage non-state actors more meaningfully. In providing clear direction from the public sector, civil society and the private sector, they too can shape the universal health coverage agenda.
As in many other sectors, there is no one-size-fits-all answer. Solutions for each country must be tailored to that country’s particular context and population needs. The international community and global health partners should unite to support all countries to build a healthier world.
The UN High Level Meeting in September must therefore reach high enough to mobilise political leadership but local enough to drive meaningful country action.