More than half a billion people face extreme poverty due to health care costs, says WHO

Covid-19 pandemic is likely to halt two decades of global progress towards Universal Health Coverage


Dhanusha Gokulan

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Published: Sun 12 Dec 2021, 8:59 PM

New evidence compiled by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the World Bank shows that the Covid-19 pandemic is likely to halt two decades of global progress towards Universal Health Coverage.

The international organisations also revealed Sunday that more than half a billion people are being pushed into extreme poverty because they have to pay for health services out of their own pockets.

The findings are contained in two complementary reports, launched on Universal Health Coverage Day, observed on December 12, highlighting the devastating impact of Covid-19 on people’s ability to obtain health care and pay for it.

The WHO organised a press conference and several high-level meetings at Dubai Expo 2020 with participation from top officials from the WHO Regional Office for the Eastern Mediterranean.

In 2020, the pandemic disrupted health services and stretched countries’ health systems beyond their limits as they struggled to deal with the impact of Covid-19. As a result, for example, immunisation coverage dropped for the first time in 10 years, and deaths from tuberculosis and malaria increased.

The new WHO and World Bank reports also warn that financial hardship is likely to become more intense as poverty grows, incomes fall, and governments face tighter fiscal constraints.

“There is no time to spare,” said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director-general on the occasion.

“All governments must immediately resume and accelerate efforts to ensure every one of their citizens can access health services without fear of the financial consequences. This means strengthening public spending on health and social support, and increasing their focus on primary health care systems that can provide essential care close to home.”

“Even before the Covid-19 pandemic struck, almost 1 billion people were spending more than 10 per cent of their household budget on health,” said Juan Pablo Uribe, global director for health, nutrition and population at World Bank.

“This is not acceptable, especially since the poorest people are hit hardest. Within a constrained fiscal space, governments will have to make tough choices to protect and increase health budgets,” he added.

Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, the World Bank Group has deployed over 157 billion USD to fight the health, economic, and social impacts of the pandemic.

Dr Ahmed Al-Mandhari, WHO regional director for the Eastern Mediterranean region, said, “Countries of WHO’s Eastern Mediterranean Region joined the global movement for Universal Health Coverage (UHC), reinforcing their commitment to achieve UHC through the Salalah Declaration of 2018 and the United Nations High-Level Meeting on UHC in 2019. However, our countries have had different levels of progress since then.”

Dr Al-Mandhari said as of March 2021, 43 per cent of countries had reported disruption to primary health care, while 45 per cent reported disruption to rehabilitative, palliative and long-term care. Life-saving emergency, critical and surgical interventions were affected in nearly one fifth of countries, and more than two thirds of countries reported disruption to elective surgeries.

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