As the executive director of UNICEF, Anthony Lake has said: "Without health care, how can children reach their full potential? And without a healthy, productive population, how can societies realise their aspirations?"
Access to health care ought to be a basic human right, not a privilege - as necessary as air, food, water, and shelter. But the world is far from realising this as billions of people around the world still struggle simply to survive. From impoverished communities in Africa and Asia to refugees seeking a better life; for them, these necessities are considered luxuries.
The World Bank and the World Health Organization report that half the world does not have access to health care, while health expenses have sent 100 million people into poverty, forcing them to live on less than US $1.90 per day.
"It is completely unacceptable that half the world still lacks coverage for the most essential health services," said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the WHO. "And it is unnecessary. A solution exists: universal health coverage (UHC) allows everyone to obtain the health services they need, when and where they need them, without facing financial hardship."
Investments in health can improve longevity and the quality of life. This is a major premise for the establishment of the Aga Khan Health Services and the Aga Khan University Hospitals and clinics that serve marginalized and rural communities in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. They also make populations more productive, helping a country’s economic growth. Better health care systems also reduce the risk of contagion within a country, and across borders.
At the inauguration of the Aga Khan Hospital expansion in Dar es Salaam in March 2019, Princess Zahra said: "The Aga Khan Development Network and Aga Khan Health Services are a leading not-for-profit health care operation working in 12 different countries, operating 20 hospitals and nearly 500 health centres that provide quality health care to more than five million patients a year, working closely with government and other institutions in areas of service delivery, population health, capacity building and cross cutting themes, medical and nursing education, digital health, health care financing and quality of care development."
While there has been some progress over the past few decades, especially in immunization and family planning, and in malaria and HIV treatments, the WHO report notes that in some regions in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, even these basic services place an inordinate financial burden on families. More healthcare facilities, lower costs, and more healthcare professionals would seem to be a solution, if government leaders make access a national priority.
Today, we are witnessing the dilemma of distribution of vaccines against Covid-19, where wealthier nations have access but poorer countries may not have supplies until 2022 or even later. While one might understand the desire of governments to first protect populations where the vaccines have been funded and developed, this situation reinforces a hierarchy of access to healthcare and the ensuing inequity.
For the sake of humanity in general, access to quality healthcare should be a moral imperative that requires as much attention as climate change, education, and other topics that have captured the attention of the public.
On this day, especially at this time, we might also recognise the dedication and talent of healthcare professionals who risk their own health and wellbeing in a dangerous environment to protect and preserve the lives of others.