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Building back better and fairer in light of the COVID-19 pandemic

“Health is not a luxury item or simply an outcome of development; it’s a fundamental human right, the means to development and the foundation of social, economic and political stability and security.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound impact worldwide. The effects of the pandemic have also further exacerbated health and social inequalities. Vast inequities also remain in COVID-19 response and vaccine distribution.

It’s time to not only ‘Build Back Better’, but also to ‘Build Back Fairer’ and more sustainably.

This means taking an integrated approach to health to address the economic, social and environmental determinants of health.

The 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda, with its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), was adopted in 2015 and prioritises health for all at all ages as a crucial element of sustainable social, economic, and environmental development.

The ‘Sustainable Development Goals Report 2021’ highlights the impacts of COVID-19 on SDG implementation and identifies areas that require urgent and coordinated action. The pandemic has exacerbated world hunger, shortened life expectancy, stalled progress in maternal and child health, and intensified violence against women and children.

The threat of climate change also looms large. The impacts of climate change are already causing immense suffering globally and harbour further systemic vulnerabilities for the global economy. Environmental crises may also heighten the likelihood and likely impact of future infectious diseases.

As highlighted in the World Bank report entitled: ‘COVID-19 and Climate-Smart Health Care: Health Sector Opportunities for a Synergistic Response to the COVID-19 and Climate Crises’ in combination with COVID-19, the climate crisis presents a clear and present risk of disrupting and overwhelming health systems.

It is critical that we increase the visibility of the full range of forces that shape health – taking on board such factors as employment, housing, education and the environment.

We are also living in an era of unprecedented scientific change, as demonstrated by the first vaccines for COVID-19 that were developed in under twelve months. For most diseases, developing a vaccine can take more than 10 years. However, global failure to share vaccines equitably continues to take its toll on some of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people.

2021 was a year of colossal efforts in global health. Countries battled COVID-19, which claimed more lives in 2021 than in 2020, while struggling to keep other health services running. Across other health areas, from diabetes to dementia, there have been both setbacks and hard-won successes.

The global health and healthcare ecosystem is complex and multi-faceted, as well demonstrated by the Health Transformation Maps developed by the World Economic Forum (WEF). The way we think about health and deliver healthcare will transform radically in the years to come.

All relevant stakeholders have a responsibility to make this happen. This requires the amplification of efforts through a defined policy agenda.

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