WHO - World Health Organization

09/21/2023 | Press release | Distributed by Public on 09/21/2023 09:30

WHO Director-General's opening remarks at the UN General Assembly High-level meeting on universal health coverage – 21 September 2023

Your Excellency Dennis Francis, President of the General Assembly,

Your Excellency Rebecca Akufo Addo, First Lady of Ghana,

Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed,

Dr Axel van Trotsenburg, Senior Managing Director of the World Bank Group.

When we met for the first High-Level Meeting on Universal Health Coverage four years ago, we had no idea that the COVID-19 pandemic was just around the corner.

Even before COVID-19, we were badly off course in our journey towards universal health coverage.

The pandemic blew us further off course, but it also showed why UHC is so important.

Resilient health systems, based on strong primary health care, are the only defence against the impact of epidemics and pandemics.

On Monday, WHO and the World Bank launched our report card on universal health coverage.

The findings are alarming. 4.5 billion people - more than half of the world's population - are not fully covered by essential health services.

And 2 billion people face financial hardship or are impoverished due to out-of-pocket health spending.

That puts families in the impossible situation of choosing between paying for health care, putting food on the table, or sending their kids to school.

These gaps put lives at risk, and prevent us from addressing many of the most pressing challenges in global health.

Every day, almost 800 women die from preventable complications of pregnancy and childbirth.

Every day, 14,000 children under five die, mostly from preventable and treatable causes.

And every day, more than 100,000 people die prematurely from noncommunicable diseases.

This is not a technical problem, it's a political problem.

And that is why we're here.

Ultimately, UHC is a choice - a political choice.

The political declaration you have approved today is a strong signal that you are making that choice.

But the choice is not just made on paper.

It's made in budget decisions.

It's made in policy decisions, inside and outside the health sector.

Most of all, it's made by investing in primary health care, which is the most inclusive, equitable, cost-effective and efficient path to universal health coverage.

In particular, investing in primary health care means investing in the people who deliver it - the health and care workers who are the backbone of every health system.

Primary health care integrates the services people really need - from remote clinics to major hospitals, from cradle to grave, and from prevention to palliation.

It also strengthens the resilience of health systems to prepare for, respond to and recover from shocks and crises.

WHO estimates that scaling up primary health care in low- and middle-income countries could save 60 million lives and increase average life expectancy by 3.7 years by 2030.

Primary health care is important for all income levels - low, middle and high.

So Excellencies, I have three requests.

First, I urge you to make the political choice for universal health coverage, by making it the central policy priority for your government.

Second, I urge you to make the financial choice for universal health coverage, by increasing domestic investments in primary health care, health workers and financial protection, starting with the most vulnerable.

And third, I urge you to make the policy choice for universal health coverage, by addressing the drivers of disease in the food people eat, the air they breathe, and the conditions in which they live and work.

These are choices that we can, and must, make today, because every day, people are dying or being impoverished because they cannot access or afford the health services they need.

Outside this building is a statue of the late Nelson Mandela - Madiba - his arms outstretched, welcoming the nations of the world to our United Nations.

Madiba said, "Health cannot be a question of income. It is a fundamental human right."

I will add to that: health is a fundamental human right, an end in itself, and a means to development.

I thank you.