The curse of COVID-19 across the world

The current scourge with the advent of COVID-19 pandemic tells us that there is the need to protect people from health emergencies

All over the world, the COVID-19 pandemic is causing significant loss of life, disrupting livelihoods, and threatening the recent advances in health and progress towards global development goals, observes the World Health Statistics published on May 13, 2020. A report on the same also quotes WHO Director-General  Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus stating, “The good news is that people around the world are living longer and healthier lives. The bad news is the rate of progress is too slow to meet the Sustainable Development Goals and will be further thrown off track by COVID-19.” He goes on to add that the pandemic highlights the urgent need for all countries to invest in strong health systems and primary health care, as the best defense against outbreaks like COVID-19, and against the many other health threats that people around the world face every day. “Health systems and health security are two sides of the same coin,” says Dr Ghebreyesus.

WHO’s World Health Statistics — an annual check-up on the world’s health — reports progress against a series of key health and health service indicators, revealing some important lessons in terms of progress made towards the Sustainable Development Goals and gaps to fill. According to this report on the world’s health, “life expectancy and healthy life expectancy” have increased, but unequally. This can be termed as good news as the biggest gains were reported in low-income countries, which saw life expectancy rise 21% or 11 years between 2000 and 2016 (compared with an increase of 4% or 3 years in higher income countries).

The report says that one driver of progress in lower-income countries was improved access to services to prevent and treat HIV, malaria and tuberculosis, as well as a number of neglected tropical diseases such as guinea worm. Another was better maternal and child healthcare, which led to a halving of child mortality between 2000 and 2018. However, in a number of areas, progress has been stalling. Immunization coverage has barely increased in recent years, and there are fears that malaria gains may be reversed. And there is an overall shortage of services within and outside the health system to prevent and treat noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) such as cancer, diabetes, heart and lung disease, and stroke.

What came as a revelation is that this uneven progress broadly mirrors “inequalities in access to quality health services”. Only between one third and one half the world’s population was able to obtain essential health services in 2017. Service coverage in low- and middle-income countries remains well below coverage in wealthier ones; as do health workforce densities. In more than 40% of all countries, there are fewer than 10 medical doctors per 10 000 people. Over 55% of countries have fewer than 40 nursing and midwifery personnel per 10 000 people, says the WHO statistics.

Identifying major challenges, the WHO says that it is the inability to pay for healthcare that stands so tall against further progress. The world body estimates that this year, 2020, approximately 1 billion people (almost 13 per cent of the global population) will be spending at least 10% of their household budgets on health care. The majority of these people live in lower middle-income countries. This indeed is bad news for the poor, if at all the experts have considered class factors in the way forward an unhealthy world.

However, the current scourge with the advent of COVID-19 pandemic tells us that there is the need to protect people from health emergencies, as well as to promote universal health coverage as correctly observed by Dr Samira Asma, Assistant Director General at WHO. She says that the message from the WHO report is clear even as the world battles the most serious pandemic in 100 years. Now, it is for one and all to put up a joint effort in defeating the curse of COVID-19 instead of falling trap to the rhetoric of cornering nations in a multi-polar world.

First Published:May 20, 2020, 10:02 a.m.