Healthcare for All | Daily News

Healthcare for All

Delivering the winding up speech on the Third Reading of the Budget Debate on Thursday, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa disclosed that the Government has spent close to Rs.90 billion this year so far on anti-COVID-19 drive alone, apart from the normal health budget that runs into billions of rupees. Sri Lanka is one of the few countries in the developing world to have universal free healthcare for all citizens from the Government health service. All Governments since Independence have followed a twin policy of free healthcare and education, which had led to excellent quality of life indices in Sri Lanka, on par with those of the developed world.

In fact, Sri Lanka has had what is now called Universal Health Coverage (UHC) long before the United Nations General Assembly endorsed a resolution urging countries to accelerate progress toward UHC – the idea that everyone, everywhere should have access to quality, affordable health care. On December 12, 2017, the United Nations proclaimed December 12 as International Universal Health Coverage Day (UHC Day) by resolution 72/138.

International Universal Health Coverage Day aims to raise awareness of the need for strong and resilient health systems and Universal Health Coverage with multi-stakeholder partners. Each year on December 12, UHC advocates raise their voices to share the stories of the millions of people still waiting for health, champion what we have achieved so far, call on leaders to make bigger and smarter investments in health, and encourage diverse groups to make commitments to help move the world closer to UHC by 2030.

The year 2020 has been a long moment of reckoning for health systems around the world. While the harsh lessons of COVID-19 are far from new—and while fears and injustices now making headlines reflect the daily reality of millions before the pandemic—the sheer scale of this crisis has sparked a new urgency around health systems and universal health coverage.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us just how important it is for all countries to have strong health systems that provide the entire populations with quality services when and where they need them. This year we have seen the tragedy that strikes when health facilities are overwhelmed by a new, highly infectious and often deadly disease – and when the effort to address that emergency means that systems are so stretched they can no longer provide other essential services such as HIV/cancer screening, routine immunization and care for mothers and babies.

Thus the world must do far more to reach the goal of achieving universal health coverage by 2030. This means spending more on health. But it also means spending better, from protecting health workers and strengthening infrastructure to preventing diseases and providing healthcare close to home. Investments in health systems also improve countries’ preparedness and response to future health emergencies. This year’s pandemic has shown us that no one is safe until everyone is safe.

Health emergencies have disproportionate impacts on marginalized and vulnerable populations. Responding to the pandemic, we have seen rapid innovative approaches to health service delivery and models of care, and advances in preparedness. Indeed, it is a miracle that several COVID-19 vaccines could be developed in less than one year. This was due to fast-track government funding and regulatory approvals, as well as the availability of new technologies such as messenger RNA.

As the new COVID-19 vaccines, tests and treatments become available, they must reach all those who need them. In fact, this has become a contentious issue. There are fears that rich countries are engaging in “vaccine nationalism” and vaccine hoarding, whereby they have pre-ordered most or all of the COVID-19 vaccine doses that the manufacturers can supply in 2021. For example, Canada, with a population of 37 million people, has reportedly ordered up to five vaccine doses per each person, whereas only two would suffice. Many other developed countries have done the same.

On the other hand, developing countries which have joined the UN-led COVAX initiative will only get doses for around 20 percent of their populations. In the case of Sri Lanka, that would mean doses for only 4.2 million people. With vaccine orders “locked up” by rich countries, it means that poor countries might have to wait till around 2024 to get enough doses to cover their entire populations even if they place an order now using their own funds in these economically strained times.

Thus the rich countries have a major role to play in this scenario. Instead of selfishly hoarding vaccines far in excess of their populations, they should either allocate a fair share of the vaccines for developing nations or license the technology to labs around the world for manufacturing at sites such as the Serum Institute of India. Universal Health Care will become a reality only if all countries work together to address global health issues.