Drawing on Lessons of Pandemic, ‘Time to Act is Now’ for Ensuring Universal Health Coverage, Medical Care, Deputy Secretary-General Tells Multi-Stakeholder Hearing

Following are UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed’s remarks, as prepared for delivery, to the Universal Health Coverage Multi-stakeholder Hearing, today:

It is my pleasure to join you today and allow me to thank the President of the General Assembly for convening this important dialogue on universal health coverage.

Everyone has a right to health and medical care — a right recognized in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Constitution of the World Health Organization.  But hundreds of millions of people, in rich countries as well as poor, cannot exercise this fundamental right, thus deepening inequalities.  Millions of people are impoverished by health-care expenses every year, pushing them into hunger and destitution.

Universal health coverage is the world’s agreed pathway to delivering on everyone’s right to health.  Inclusive, sustainable development that leaves no one behind is only possible when everyone has access to the medical care they need.  It is both a key target of the Sustainable Development Goals and an enabler of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development as a whole.  It is deeply entwined with other goals, from ending poverty and hunger to achieving gender equality and economic growth.

The COVID-19 pandemic cast a spotlight on how fundamental good health is to every aspect of our lives, and how fragile our access to health is.  More than 90 per cent of countries reported that the pandemic disrupted essential health services.  Some 25 million children under 5 missed out on routine immunization.

A tiny virus showed us the infinite value of accessible, affordable public health services — and the fragility of our health systems today. While the race for vaccines demonstrated the importance of cutting-edge innovation and research, unequal access to those same vaccines prolonged the pandemic’s impact and made recovery harder for many countries, especially in the developing world.

And we have still not yet acted on the lessons of the pandemic — our investments in health are already dropping, in many places to levels lower than before the pandemic.  Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 3 on health is among the one third of SDGs that have stalled or gone into reverse.

Progress on important communicable diseases has stalled or even reversed, including major killers like tuberculosis and malaria.  And where we have seen progress in other areas, like maternal mortality, it is insufficient to meet our 2030 targets.

Although COVID-19 is here to stay, as the pandemic recedes we have the opportunity to change course for a better future.  Urgent political commitment, attention and action on universal health coverage is key to turning the situation around.

This means, first and foremost, investing more — and better — in primary health systems, so that they are resilient, equitable and capable of meeting the key health needs of today and the challenges of tomorrow.  This means re-organizing health systems to focus on goals that not only manage disease, but also produce good health.

It also means investing in health promotion and disease prevention, and prioritizing interventions that address major risk factors — tobacco, unhealthy diets, harmful use of alcohol, physical inactivity and air pollution — to optimize health and well-being throughout the life course.

Every year 17 million people under the age of 70 die of noncommunicable diseases; 86 per cent of whom live in low- and middle-income countries.  Many of these early deaths can be prevented.

Universal health coverage is essential for individuals to enjoy their full human rights.  And it brings important benefits to societies and economies.  Where health systems are strong, people live longer, and are healthier, happier and more productive.  Societies are more resilient to shocks.  And we are better prepared for future pandemics and other crises.

The High-Level Meeting on Universal Health Coverage in September will be an opportunity to bring a sense of new urgency and new policies to strengthening health systems for today and for the future.  Leaders must act now to design and provide resources for health systems that are people-centred, integrated and equitable.

Government financing is paramount.  In low-income countries, external aid accounts for an average of 29 per cent of health spending, which is more than national spending.  This is not sustainable.  On health financing and workforce, there is a global shortage of 15 million health workers in 2020, and a projected decline in the shortage to 10 million by 2030.  This too is unacceptable.

We need global and local solutions, and we need them now.  We need an inclusive approach that brings in all stakeholders, including the private sector, health-care workers, civil society, community workers, academia and more.  The High-Level Meeting on Universal Health Coverage will be a critical opportunity to make concrete gains.

We need each and every Member State to commit to radically reorienting health systems to provide quality primary health care.  We need them to be held accountable for leading the progressive realization of SDG 3 and Health for All.

This is one of the most important political choices a Government can make, at the national as well as international level.  The entire United Nations system stands ready to support you.  Health for all is key to addressing inequalities and advancing the SDGs, we cannot achieve sustainable development without it.  The time to act is now.

For information media. Not an official record.