Endorsing Political Declaration on Universal Coverage, Member States in High-Level Summit Stress Every Human Being Has Right to Good Health
Recommitting to universal health coverage, Member States today endorsed a political declaration proclaiming that every human being has the right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health. The declaration, which has yet to be formally adopted by the General Assembly, comes four years after the adoption in 2019 of the first Declaration on the subject, in which Member States committed to implementing “high-impact” policies to protect people's health.
In this new declaration, approved at the beginning of a high-level meeting that heard from over 100 speakers, Member States also recognize that universal health coverage is fundamental to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), not only those related to health and well-being, but also those related to poverty eradication, access to education, gender equality and building peaceful and inclusive societies. They further reaffirm the primary role of States in the establishment of such coverage.
Member States also spotlighted the serious health gaps that emerged during the recent COVID-19 pandemic and pointed out that no progress has been made since 2019 in expanding health coverage globally. They also drew attention to the serious underfunding of national health systems, particularly regarding the allocation of public and external funds, as well as the serious shortage of approximately 10 million health workers by 2030.
“Health is a right for all, a fundamental issue of social justice, equity and human rights,” said Dennis Francis (Trinidad and Tobago), President of the General Assembly. Recalling that, every year, millions of people fall into poverty because of the cost of their health care, he emphasized: “Health and sustainable development are two sides of the same coin.”
“Health cannot be about income,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO), quoting the late Nelson Mandela. He reported that 4.5 billion people are not fully covered by essential health services and that 2 billion face financial hardship, with many having to choose between buying medicine or food.
He also reported that nearly 800 women die every day from complications related to childbirth and 100,000 people die prematurely every day due to a non‑communicable disease. Above all, achieving universal health coverage is a political challenge, not a technical one, he stated, adding: “It's a political choice.” In this regard, the new Declaration sends a strong message on that point. Strengthening primary health care worldwide would save no less than 60 million lives, he added.
“Let's make the political choice of universal health coverage,” emphasized Rebecca Akufo-Addo, First Lady of Ghana, observing that the world is not doing enough to achieve universal health coverage, including in developed countries where gaps in access to care persist. She also urged developed countries to assist developing countries in the distribution of generic medicines. “Health must be accessible to all. If we want to, we will get there,” she said.
All speakers welcomed the endorsement of the declaration, as did the President of Chile, who recalled how rivalry and competition had prevailed over cooperation during the pandemic, particularly in regard to accessing vaccines. “The right to health is a human right that must be guaranteed for all,” he said, while the President of Montenegro noted that there can be no prosperity without health.
“Universal health coverage is a human rights issue,” added Ireland's Minister for Health, who noted that retention of health workers is a major focus of his country’s health policy. His counterpart from Iraq pledged to implement universal coverage, while Estonia's Minister for Health praised the benefits of digitalization in terms of access to medical services. “The condition of health is peace,” she added, strongly condemning the war in Ukraine.
The Minister for Foreign Affairs of Tonga also focused on innovation to strengthen the provision of care, including through the use of telemedicine, while the Minister for Health of Romania stressed the need to reorient health systems towards primary care. “They are the ones who will enable us to achieve universal health coverage,” he pointed out.
Calls for enhanced international solidarity were also heard during the Summit, including by the Minister for Health of Jamaica who urged that ground lost during the pandemic be regained. “Global solidarity is needed to strengthen the health capacities of developing countries,” said the Minister for Foreign Affairs of Cameroon, stressing the importance of official development assistance (ODA).
To that point, Lebanon’s Minister for Health underscored that, while the Lebanese people are resilient, international solidarity remains fundamental. The Minister for Health and Sanitation of Sierra Leone reported that the lack of universal health coverage in Africa has a negative impact on the health of populations, as fewer adults are able to access treatment for non-communicable diseases. His Malian counterpart urged the international community to support the Government of Mali in extending such coverage to his country, including in crisis areas.
For her part, the Minister for Health of Antigua and Barbuda drew attention to the challenge for small island developing States in accessing a supply of vaccines, insisting: “There can be no higher priority than the proper financing of health systems.” On another point, the Minister for Foreign Affairs of Mexico reported that 2 million people will be covered in her country, thanks to the efforts of her Government. However, she voiced her objection regarding the commodification of health. “You shouldn't make money from health problems,” she declared.
The Minister for Health of Slovakia called for a global budget for national investment, while the Prime Minister of Japan said the Group of Seven recognizes the need to strengthen the global health system to prepare for pandemics. To that end, $5 billion was donated by Japan, he said. Echoing that, the European Union's Commissioner for Home Affairs emphasized that now is the time for world leaders to ensure there is universal coverage by 2030, including in developing countries. This is a top priority for the bloc, he added.
Nonetheless, some delegations took a different stance, including the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade of Hungary who said that the application of such coverage should first help those who need it without creating additional problems. Refugees allowed to reside temporarily in the territory should therefore have access to the same health care, while illegal migrants should not have the same rights, he said.
For his part, the Minister of Health of Singapore recalled that the fundamental task of health systems is to care for the sick, which is difficult when the population is ageing. More resources must, therefore, be invested in preventive care, such as promoting healthy lifestyles, he said.