COVID has triggered worst economic crisis since 1930s, says WHO

COVID has triggered worst economic crisis since 1930s, says WHO

Over 500 million people are pushed into extreme poverty as they’re forced to pay for health services, says WHO; urges nations to act quickly

Cautioning that more that half-a-billion people are being pushed into extreme poverty, the World Health Organization (WHO) has said COVID is likely to halt two decades of progress towards Universal Health Coverage (UHC) globally. Citing data from a report each by the WHO and the World Bank, it said the pandemic has triggered the worst economic crisis since the 1930s, making it increasingly difficult for people to pay for care.

In 2020, when the pandemic broke out, it disrupted health services and stretched countries’ health systems — budget as well as infrastructure — well beyond their limits, said the WHO in a press release.

As governments struggled to deal with the impact of COVID, it hampered their other healthcare programmes. For example, it said, immunisation coverage dropped for the first time in 10 years, and deaths from TB and malaria increased.

Increasing financial crunch

“The pandemic also triggered the worst economic crisis since the 1930s, making it increasingly difficult for people to pay for care,” said the press release. What is worrisome is that even before the pandemic, half-a-billion people were headed to poverty or extreme poverty since they had to pay for healthcare, it added.

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“The organisations (WHO and World Bank) expect that that number is now considerably higher,” said the release. As incomes fall, government tighten budgets and poverty escalates, the financial hardships are only bound to grow, it pointed out.

“Even before the COVID pandemic struck, almost 1 billion people were spending more than 10% of their household budget on health,” said the release, quoting Juan Pablo Uribe, Global Director for Health, Nutrition and Population at World Bank. “This is not acceptable, especially since the poorest people are hit hardest. Within a constrained fiscal space, governments will have to make tough choices to protect and increase health budgets.”

Progress in essential health services

The WHO noted that in the first two decades of this century, governments worldwide had made progress on UHC. Before the pandemic began, in 2019, around 68% of the world’s population was covered by essential health services, it said. These included pre- and post-natal care, reproductive health services, universal immunisation, treatment for contagious diseases such as HIV, TB and malaria, and services to diagnose and mange noncommunicable diseases such as cancer, heart conditions and diabetes.

However, said the agency, the governments had failed to make advances in ensuring affordability, making the poor highly vulnerable. “As a result, the poorest groups and those living in rural areas are the least able to obtain health services, and the least likely to be able to cope with the consequences of paying for them,” it said.

“Up to 90% of all households incurring impoverishing out-of-pocket health spending are already at or below the poverty line — underscoring the need to exempt poor people from out-of-pocket health spending, backing such measures with health financing policies that enable good intentions to be realized in practice.”

Call for quick action

“There is no time to spare,” cautioned Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General. “All governments must immediately resume and accelerate efforts to ensure every one of their citizens can access health services without fear of the financial consequences.”

Toward this end, he recommended strengthening of public spending on health and social support, and sharpening their focus on primary healthcare systems that provide essential care close to home.

This time round, governments should ensure the UHC schemes are more robust and sustainable, said Ghebreyesus. “This time we must build health systems that are strong enough to withstand shocks, such as the next pandemic, and stay on course towards universal health coverage,” he said.

Further, the WHO said services for poor and vulnerable populations should be prioritised and supported through targeted public spending. Governments should come up with policies to protect individuals from financial hardship, it added.

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