On 12 December, the world will celebrate Universal Health Coverage Day, a day where we ask for more investments into health systems that protect us all. At the end of a year heavily disrupted by COVID-19, we need to collectively ask for better access to health care in order to recover from this pandemic. A lot more commitments from our leaders are necessary to build stronger health systems to make Universal Health Coverage a reality.

Universal Health Coverage "our lives, livelihoods and futures depend on it" graphic

What is Universal Health Coverage?

What we need to see in terms of health coverage can be explained through a story from India this year, which emphasises the shocking situation in which many people are forced to pay for their health for the profit of private businesses. The BMJ reported the story of a man who brought his mother to the closest Government-run hospital, in which she tested positive for COVID-19. She couldn’t be taken care of there because of the lack of facilities and equipment necessary for COVID-19 patients, and was therefore admitted to a privately run hospital. Being charged incessantly through hidden costs, he was left with huge bills for treatment and medical facilities, which couldn’t save his mother’s life from the virus.  

The spread of COVID-19 has made this type of story very common around the world, as the pandemic has further amplified the already existing issues related to price regulation for health care, and access to reliable and affordable health facilities and treatments.

The recovery from this pandemic depends on people having access to health services without suffering from financial hardship, and this is what the Universal Health Coverage tries to achieve:

  • A protection against financial struggle due to out-of-pocket payments for health services;
  • Easier access to health services beyond the minimum essential health care; and
  • Improving the health of the whole population by sharing information and preparing for future public health challenges.

Making progress towards Universal Health Coverage is essential to ending extreme poverty worldwide, as it gives everyone a chance to optimise their health without having to pay a high price for it.

Making Universal Health Coverage a reality via stronger health systems

Without Universal Health Coverage, efforts to recover from COVID-19 won’t be enough to lift people out of poverty and protect the most vulnerable and marginalised populations from future health crises. To realise Universal Health Coverage, quality health cares need to be accessible and affordable to everyone. Which is why countries’ efforts to sustainably improve health systems, known as ‘health systems strengthening’, should ensure that essential health services are adequately financed and are delivered everywhere.

These essential services include access to timely vaccinations services (to prevent illness, costly medical interventions and disability); nutrition interventions (to prevent susceptibility to disease and to maximise the impact of other health interventions); and early diagnosis and treatment of infectious diseases such as tuberculosis (to prevent prolonged suffering, additional medical complications and further transmission to others).

Yet the most vulnerable and marginalised populations often face difficulties in accessing these essential services, increased by service disruptions during COVID-19 lockdowns and lack of medical facilities. This can be prevented by creating stronger and more equitable health systems that encompass all the three essential services. Investing in these three co-dependent interventions is essential to build efficient health systems and making Universal Health Coverage a reality.

Building back better in 2021

Strengthening global health security and economic development have been highlighted by the Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab as two global challenges in which the UK can make the most difference.

The UK Presidency of the G7 in 2021 will be a unique opportunity to accelerate progress towards Universal Health Coverage, by showing support to multilaterals such as the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) and the Global Fund, which are in need of support from the G7 to adapt their programmes to the COVID-19 context. The G7 will also be a key moment to commit to ending malnutrition, ahead of the Tokyo Nutrition for Growth Summit (N4G) happening in December 2021.

The UK must use the G7 as an opportunity to honour its commitments to strengthening global health security and pandemic response and recovery, by accelerating progress in global health beyond COVID-19, and making Universal Health Coverage a reality for everyone, everywhere.