29 April 2019
Seventy-third Session, Interactive Multi-stakeholder Hearing (AM)

Global Health Security ‘Affects Us All’, Senior United Nations Official Tells General Assembly, Calling for Picking Up Pace towards Universal Coverage

The General Assembly today held a multi-stakeholder hearing as part of the preparatory process for its high-level meeting on universal health coverage, addressing the theme of “moving together to build a healthier world”.

Opening the morning session, María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés (Ecuador), President of the General Assembly, said the growing push for universal health coverage and strengthening primary care services is crucial to the delivery of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.  Noting that at least half the world’s population lacks access to essential health services, she observed that “they are forced into choices that no one should ever have to make:  do I buy medicine or food?  Education or treatment?”  Moreover, the macrolevel impact of poor health services is estimated at trillions of dollars annually in lost productivity, long‑term impairment and short-term expenditure.  Health services also make a crucial contribution to reducing mortality during conflict and to peacebuilding.  As such, she highlighted the importance of robust and inclusive health systems during the West Africa’s Ebola outbreak in 2014.  In September, during the high‑level meeting of the General Assembly, the aim must be to accelerate progress on coverage, she pointed out, adding that today’s discussion represents an opportunity to prepare for that meeting.

Also looking forward to the September meeting, Maria Luiza Ribeiro Viotti, Chef de Cabinet of the Executive Office of the Secretary-General, noted that it will underpin efforts towards further collective action and more coherent accountability mechanisms in the context of health care.  She expressed hope that it will usher in a new era in global health, as well as allow for increased investment in this regard.

Joining the meeting via teleconference from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO), stressed that “global health security affects us all”.  When countries have robust, end-to-end primary health systems, he added, outbreaks are prevented, crises are infrequent, and families and communities are empowered in ways that go beyond the specifics of health care.  While many countries are moving towards universal health coverage, “we must pick up the pace”, he stressed.  More than 800 million people incur catastrophic health expenditures and around 100 million people are in poverty due to such out of pocket expenditures.  Recalling that last October, countries from around the world vowed to strengthen primary health care with many Member States endorsing the Astana Declaration on Primary Health Care, he said that the chance to turn the vision of universal health care into a reality is within the grasp of the international community.

Delivering the keynote address, Githinji Gitahi, Co-Chair of UHC2030 and Chief Executive Officer of Amref Health Africa Foundation, said the starting point of universal health care is not a technical one, but a social consensus that health is a universal human right.  As embedded in Sustainable Development Goal 3, health is also about nations’ security and prosperity.  Universal Health Coverage 2030 aims to promote collaboration and equity-based health systems at the global and country level, he said, reporting that, after wide consultations with parliamentarians, private sector, academia and civil society, the programme has developed a list of key priorities.  To make it possible for everyone, everywhere to have access to quality and affordable health care, he said, political leaders must collaborate with other stakeholders to achieve universal health care as a social contract.  Stressing the importance of equity, quality and women’s empowerment, he called on political leaders to create a strong regulatory environment that can accelerate progress towards universal health care.

Describing her personal experiences in terms of accessing health services, Alaa Murabit, Sustainable Development Goal Global Advocate, expressed pride over Canada’s universal health care coverage.  That coverage communicates that “we value human life beyond measure, and that we recognize the importance health care plays on human dignity, prosperity and opportunity,” she observed.  Robbing citizens of opportunities afforded by quality health care constitutes a violation of human rights, she emphasized.  Universal health care encapsulates a comprehensive definition, spanning economic, social, environmental and cultural dimensions.  Economically, it means taking measures to protect the planet to avoid the brunt of post-disaster and climate conflict health care provision.  It also means refusing to support businesses and individuals who do not pay their employees, and creating a society built upon the foundation of safe, clean workplaces and equal opportunities.  “Universal health care forces us to step out of the political battlefield and depoliticize human rights,” she pointed out, stressing that human worth cannot be prioritized by national interest or secured by walls.  To meet challenges in that regard, States must not become further isolated or privatize basic human rights.  Instead, the global community must provide the necessary resources to promote sustainable security through universal health care.

Also drawing attention to personal experience, Adaora Okoli, Health for All storyteller and Ebola survivor, recalled that she contracted Ebola as a health worker in a private hospital in Lagos, Nigeria, from a patient.  Nigeria managed to contain the epidemic, she said, “but we dodged a bullet”.  If the patient with Ebola could not have afforded the private hospital, he would have gone to a public hospital where the doctors were on strike.  Others could have self-treated at home, spreading the disease to family members in Africa’s most populated city.  Stressing that “a healthy nation is a rich nation”, she called on politicians to ensure that citizens should not have to sell belongings to afford health services.

The meeting continued with interactive panels and discussions on the topic throughout the day.

The Assembly will meet at a time and date to be announced.

For information media. Not an official record.