By Vittoria Acampora
The political declaration on Universal Coverage was approved at the beginning of a high-level assembly held on September 21, 2023, featuring insights from more than 100 speakers. Member States have once again reaffirmed their dedication to universal health coverage, proclaiming that every human being has the inalienable right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health. The Universal Coverage follows the adoption of the first Declaration on the subject in 2019, where Member States pledged to enact impactful policies aimed at safeguarding people’s health; however, formal adoption of this declaration by the General Assembly is still pending.
Member States underscore the importance of universal health coverage and recognize its key role in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). These encompass a wide spectrum of objectives, including health and well-being, poverty eradication, access to education, gender equality, and fostering peaceful and inclusive societies. Of great significance is the reiteration of the primary role played by governments in establishing comprehensive health coverage.
The recent COVID-19 pandemic exposed the strong health gaps and disparities: Member States point out the absence of substantial progress in expanding global health coverage since 2019. In particular, Japan's Prime Minister highlighted the need to strengthen the global health system in preparation for pandemics, accompanied by a substantial donation. Throughout the summit, calls for enhanced international solidarity resounded, with an emphasis on regaining lost ground during the pandemic.
International solidarity emerged as a crucial theme for strengthening the health capacities of developing countries, as stated by the Minister for Foreign Affairs of Cameroon, who highlighted the importance of Official Development Assistance (ODA). Furthermore, Ministers for Health of Sierra Leone, Mali, and Lebanon complained about the lack of universal health coverage in Africa, particularly in crisis areas, which negatively impacts populations' access to treatment for non-communicable diseases. Equally concerning is the shortfall in funding for national healthcare systems, regarding the allocation of public and external funds, as well as an impending crisis related to a shortage of around 10 million healthcare workers by 2030.
This new declaration on Universal Coverage reaffirms the concept that health is not merely a matter of income but rather a fundamental issue of social justice, equity, and human rights. The President of the General Assembly, Dennis Francis of Trinidad and Tobago, emphasized that millions of people are pushed into poverty annually due to the prohibitive cost of healthcare. Furthermore, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO), highlighted how universal health coverage is not merely a technical challenge but a political choice. Finally, the First Lady of Ghana called upon developed countries to assist in distributing generic medicines, stressing the imperative of accessible healthcare for all. The urgency for world leaders to ensure universal coverage by 2030 became extremely evident.
Digitalization's role in improving access to medical services and innovation, as well as telemedicine's potential to enhance healthcare provision, were praised by Estonia's Minister for Health and the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Tonga. However, some delegations held contrasting views, as Hungary's Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade argued for prioritizing those in need without generating additional problems: specifically, he suggested that refugees residing in a territory should have access to the same healthcare, while illegal migrants should not have the same rights. The Minister of Health of Singapore suggested that more resources must be invested in preventive care, such as promoting healthy lifestyles, because the health system cares for the sick, which is difficult when the population is ageing.
In conclusion, the Declaration on Universal Coverage stands as a testament to the devotion to the cause by the Member states, which have reasserted their commitment to universal health coverage as a human right, acknowledging disparities, financial constraints, and workforce shortages, as well as collectively underlined the necessity for political decisions and international solidarity to overcome these challenges.
Endorsing Political Declaration on Universal Coverage, Member States in High-Level Summit Stress Every Human Being Has Right to Good Health | UN Press. (2023, September 21). https://press.un.org/en/2023/ga12535.doc.htm