Vaccine collaboration is welcome, but strong resilient health systems are the best protection for all
While resources are being challenged, shifting focus and funding away from health systems is never the answer, writes Lord McConnell and Pauline Latham MP. | PA Images
Covid-19 has exposed weaknesses in health systems around the world, exacerbating existing inequalities and causing major disruptions to the provision of essential health services.
In his speech for the 75th UN General Assembly, Boris Johnson called on world leaders to unite in the fight against coronavirus, arguing that the international community appears to have been left “tattered” in the face of the pandemic.
The Prime Minister announced commitments to global collaborative efforts, in particular to the World Health Organisation (WHO), and through a new £571 million commitment to COVAX, an initiative aiming to distribute a Covid-19 vaccine across the world.
We very much welcome UK leadership on international efforts to tackle Covid-19 and these are critical steps.
However, beyond finding and distributing a vaccine, global health now faces some of the biggest challenges of our times. Covid-19 has exposed weaknesses in health systems around the world, exacerbating existing inequalities and causing major disruptions to the provision of essential health services. It is also derailing efforts to fulfil access to health for all.
Urgent action is needed to ensure leaders see how the global pandemic response and efforts to rebuild more resilient, equitable health systems go hand in hand.
How is Covid-19 shaking progress on Universal Health Coverage?
A recent inquiry by the APPG on the UN Global Goals for Sustainable Development presents evidence showing the profound impact of the pandemic on global development. In terms of health, it revealed ways in which health systems have been tested both directly and indirectly. For the latter, Covid-19 has caused widespread disruptions to essential health services including routine vaccinations and treatment for non-communicable diseases (such as cancer).
While resources are being challenged, shifting focus and funding away from health systems is never the answer
The predictions for the impact on children and sexual and reproductive health services in particular are bleak.
WHO, for example, estimates that at least 80 million children under the age of one are at risk of missing out on routine vaccinations. While data from the Guttmacher Institute predicts that a 10% decrease in SRH services could lead to 49 million more women with unmet need for modern contraception.
Shifting funding and attention from these services to the Covid-19 response is threatening years of progress in improving global health outcomes.
The UK’s role in building stronger health systems
Undoubtedly, the UK’s position as the second-largest government donor to global health has contributed to major successes over recent years. However, a recent report from Action for Global Health (endorsed by more than 30 global health institutions), evaluates the UK’s contributions to date, and the data reveals some critical gaps.
Firstly, the under-prioritisation of health systems and health workers in UK programmes is clear. Commitments to increase financial risk protection and eliminate out-of-pocket payments for those seeking essential health services are also lacking. With decades of experience delivering health services free at the point of use, this feels like a missed opportunity for the UK to share vital learnings.
Covid-19 has taught us how humanity is bound together by health in the way it connects to all aspects of our lives, and the need to ensure the delivery of quality, affordable healthcare for everyone, everywhere. A truly global Britain has the reach and influence to do more and should proactively encourage international unity on making this a reality.
The UK Government must not miss the opportunity to start seeing the pandemic response as part of a long-term vision for global health
Integrating the UK’s UHC efforts with the Covid-19 response
So, will the ramifications of Covid-19 inspire cross-border political efforts on health for all?
On the one hand, the UK’s recent pledge demonstrates a bigger commitment to global unity. On the other, there is a growing concern that Covid-19 has in fact come to represent global health for decision-makers, as they underestimate the gravity of its impact on other health services.
Most recently, following cuts to UK Official Development Assistance (ODA), health systems globally were not prioritised in the division of funds, with the Covid-19 response the sole health priority named.
While resources are being challenged, shifting focus and funding away from health systems is never the answer. The UK Government must not miss the opportunity to start seeing the pandemic response as part of a long-term vision for global health.
Lord McConnell is a Labour Member of the House of Lords and Pauline Latham is the Conservative MP for Mid Derbyshire. They are co-chair and vice chair of the APPG on the UN Global Goals for Sustainable Development.