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A Rights-Based Path to Global Health

Only collective action, solidarity, and a renewed commitment to the values and institutions of multilateralism can secure a truly healthy and sustainable recovery for all. We need all three now, because we will need them in the years ahead.

The global COVID-19 crisis has highlighted the inextricable links between health and human rights. Although the pandemic has left no corner of the world untouched, it is the poorest and most marginalized who have been worst affected by its health, economic, and social impact.

Women are particularly vulnerable to the pandemic’s long-lasting and severe economic shocks, given their disproportionate representation in the informal labor force. In addition, girls are more likely than boys to be denied educational opportunities as the crisis hits developing countries’ public finances and household budgets.

World leaders should therefore ensure that their national and international recovery plans are aligned with the World Health Organization’s constitution, which states that, “the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health is one of the fundamental rights of every human being.” Nelson Mandela, whose life and legacy remind us that we must never abandon hope even in the bleakest circumstances, echoed that principle: “Health cannot be a question of income; it is a fundamental human right.”

The mass COVID-19 vaccination programs currently underway in some countries and regions offer great hope that transmission of the coronavirus can be contained. But the globally uneven nature of vaccine rollouts means that there can be no quick fix to the public-health crisis destabilizing the world.

Countries including the United Kingdom, the United States, and Israel have been at the forefront of vaccinating their populations, while many poorer countries have yet to start their immunization programs.

This is a dangerous precedent. A key lesson we must learn from this pandemic – which already has cost too many lives, ruined too many livelihoods, exacerbated inequalities, and stoked nationalist sentiments – is that in an inherently interdependent world, it is in every country’s interest to cooperate.

We are all in this together. Governments, the private sector, and regulators must therefore take decisive steps to ensure that COVID-19 vaccines are produced and distributed equitably across the world’s population, rather than being hoarded by wealthy countries.

Besides the compelling moral case for solidarity regarding global health, there is a strong cost-benefit argument for cooperation and burden-sharing: The cost of a pandemic dwarfs the costs of pandemic preparedness. Spending $5 per person for the next five years would enable the world to prepare for a future pandemic. Although the total cost would run into billions of dollars, the world has thus far spent more than $11 trillion tackling COVID-19.

Economists and health experts have long understood that investment in health is an investment in the economy as a whole. In fact, not investing in health is the epitome of a false economy. In 2013, a Lancet Commission estimated that such investments would generate economic returns at least ten times greater than the public spending outlay.

But despite this, leaders and policymakers have collectively failed to take pandemic prevention and preparedness seriously and prioritize them accordingly. COVID-19 is both a wake-up call and a final warning.

To overcome COVID-19 fully and ensure that hard-won development and gender-equality gains are not swept away in its wake, we need to reconstruct global public-health policy on three pillars: pandemic preparedness, universal health coverage (UHC), and holistic policies integrating health into broader development goals.

The safety net that UHC provides is essential to support families and communities in this time of crisis. That includes not only those suffering from COVID-19 but also patients needing treatments for other diseases such as cancer, malaria, and HIV/AIDS.

At the same time, however, we need to recognize that UHC is not a panacea. Some developed countries with internationally regarded public-health systems – such as the UK, where lack of wealth is no barrier to treatment – have suffered grievous COVID-19 death tolls.

Their experience is a warning against complacency, and a reminder that any country lacking clear-sighted political leadership can remain vulnerable to health shocks – no matter how well designed its health system may be.

The challenge facing the international community now is to back up words with action, and ensure that COVID-19 recovery efforts are properly funded and do not overlook the needs of the poor and marginalized. This will require conceiving and implementing policies to deliver UHC within the wider multilateral framework of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, guided by the SDGs’ mantra: “leave no one behind.”

In a pandemic, only collective action, solidarity, and a renewed commitment to the values and institutions of multilateralism will secure a truly healthy and sustainable recovery for all. We need all three now, because we will need them in the years ahead.

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