United Nations (UN) Secretary General Antonio Guterres warned about rising cases of COVID-19 infections worldwide and “troubling signs of new waves” as he pushed for a Universal Health Coverage that will include strong public health systems and emergency preparedness for communities and economies.

000 8RM2LX - UN warns of troubling signs of new waves of COVID infections
Antonio Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations
(Photo by Manuel ELIAS / UNITED NATIONS / AFP / MANILA BULLETIN)

“Nine months since we first heard of COVID-19, the pandemic has claimed more than one million lives and infected more than 30 million people in 190 countries. Much about the virus remains unknown. But one basic fact is clear: The world was not prepared,” he said.

Guterres said the pandemic has revealed utterly inadequate health systems, yawning gaps in social protection, and major structural inequalities within and between countries.

“We must all draw the hard lessons of this crisis. One of those lessons is that under-investment in health can have a devastating impact on societies and economies,” he said.

The UN Chief said the pandemic is costing the global economy $375 billion a month. Some 500 million jobs have been lost, human development is going into reverse for the first time since 1990.

Guterres said a Universal Health Coverage is the backdrop to the policy brief that the UN launched on Wednesday.

“At least half the world’s people do not have access to the health services they need. Some 100 million people are driven into poverty each year by catastrophic health-care costs. This huge gap in health coverage is one reason why COVID-19 has caused so much pain and suffering,” he said.

He added that Universal Health Coverage requires governments to step up investment in common goods for health, including surveillance and risk communication, “so that the world never faces such a situation again.”

It also requires public health programs to be inclusive and equitable, without financial barriers. “Health treatment should not depend on financial status,” he emphasized.

All countries have agreed to work towards Universal Health Coverage as part of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

“But we cannot wait 10 years. We need Universal Health Coverage, including mental health coverage, now, to strengthen efforts against the pandemic and prepare for future crises,” he warned.

Aside from Universal Health Coverage, the four other recommendations of the policy brief are:

• To control further transmission of COVID-19 through proven public health measures and a coordinated global response.

• To protect the delivery of other health services during the pandemic. COVID-19 is indirectly killing people with heart disease and cancer, as well as those it infects. And access to mental health services and sexual and reproductive health programs cannot be compromised.

• To ensure that everyone has access to future COVID-19 vaccines, tests and treatment. Funding the groundbreaking ACT-Accelerator is the fastest way to end the pandemic.

• To strengthen preparedness. That means involving all sectors of society, and investing in alert systems that trigger action by health authorities.

Pandemic preparedness and response are global public goods that require large-scale investments.

“Universal Health Coverage comes at a cost. But the price is cheap, when we consider the alternative. I urge all to speed up and scale up investment in Universal Health Coverage and in stronger health systems, starting immediately,” Guterres said.

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