Covid-19 has stopped the world in its tracks, turned our lives upside down and forced us to re-evaluate what matters most to us all. That means how to protect the health of people, their loved ones and their neighbours today and in the future.
Governments have responded robustly. In Thailand, for instance, decades of investment in the public health system primed it to respond rapidly in early January when Covid-19 came knocking. Italy, the first western country to face the brunt of the virus, demonstrated through national collaboration and a commitment to science that no matter how challenging an outbreak, it can be turned around.
The pandemic has brought to the fore the inequities so many people around the world face today in health. Covid-19 has not stopped people needing insulin for diabetes, healthy food for nutrition, and services to screen for and treat cancer.
It has also presented new challenges to the world order that, for the past 75 years, has strived to promote peace and development, built on the principles of multilateralism, respect and collaboration.
And, following in the footsteps of the climate crisis that threatens our collective future, Covid-19 has underlined the need for a “One Health” approach to protecting the fragile interplay between human, animal and planetary health.
Sobering examples like HIV, Ebola and now Covid-19 show why we, as a human race, can no longer merely pay lip service to respecting the environment. We must and can do more to prevent the reckless, human-caused spillovers of viruses from the natural world into our communities.
Above all, the Covid-19 tragedy has left us with no option but to change how we approach health for the better. We need to ensure health services for all through investing in universal health coverage (UHC); strengthening national and global health emergency preparedness systems; and treating health as a series of political, security, economic and social choices.
We must ensure that everybody on the planet can access the services and care they need to attain the highest possible level of physical and mental wellbeing. This is why UHC, underpinned by primary healthcare, is so key. Countries like New Zealand and Rwanda that have invested in it are better able to deliver services to all, especially the most vulnerable, and to withstand sudden shocks brought about by health emergencies.
Preparedness is also pivotal. The world was woefully ill-prepared for the Covid-19 pandemic. Industrialised countries, confident in the medicalised nature of their seemingly strong health systems, lacked the human and local touch shown by countries like Thailand, where health workers went door to door, providing essential primary care services, and looking for warning signs of infection, at the community level.The human touch: health workers check students for signs of coronavirus in Bangkok © Lillian Suwanrumpha/AFP via Getty Images
To provide both UHC and preparedness, increased investment in health systems is essential. Herein lie the political and economic choices. When political leaders at the highest level prioritise investment in their people’s health, they are also shoring up their societies against the devastating effects that health challenges can have on employment, vital services and local economic life.
Investment in health costs a fraction of the losses we see today caused by Covid-19. This underscores the importance of the historic global effort that is under way to develop rapidly distribute equitably safe and effective vaccines, treatments and diagnostics to fight the new coronavirus through the Access to Covid-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator initiative.
We are pleased that scores of health partners and countries are supporting the ACT Accelerator, which requires $35bn, almost half of which is needed for the vaccine component, called Covax. Such investment pales in comparison with the trillions lost in global economic activity, trade, travel and job losses. Rapid and full funding of this historic initiative offers the world the best way to end the acute phase of the pandemic.
At the World Health Organization, we are determined to use the seismic shock caused by Covid-19 as a driving force for change. It is essential for the entire world to reflect on all aspects of this response, and to learn collectively from what has worked, and what has not, to prevent a crisis like this from happening again.
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But I have already seen how the impact of Covid-19 has caused a monumental shift across humanity, and this gives me hope. The pandemic has generated the most amazing stimulus for partnership and solidarity across so many sectors.
Scientists around the world are working together to develop the tools needed to protect people. Health workers are striving night and day to save lives and heal the sick. Diverse communities, from artists to athletes, philanthropists to tech giants, are using their influence and resources for the greater good.
And many political leaders and governments are putting the pandemic before politics and doing all that must be done to protect their public. This must become the norm. The human losses sustained, and the sacrifices that so many have made, oblige us to elevate public health to the highest level possible. We are duty bound to use Covid-19 as the turning point for the health of all people everywhere. I believe we can make the right choice.
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus is director-general of the World Health Organization