The Commonwealth Secretary-General, the Rt Hon Patricia Scotland KC, and Health Ministers from across the Commonwealth are set to meet in Geneva on Saturday, 20 May 2023, to forge a path forward on accelerating efforts to achieve Universal Health Coverage (UHC), during the 35th Commonwealth Health Ministers Meeting (CHMM).
The Commonwealth faces significant inequities of access to quality and affordable health services, which has been exposed but also exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Recent reporting from the World Health Organization has indicated that the Commonwealth remains far behind on achieving UHC by 2030, particularly in low and lower-middle-income countries, and in marginalised populations across all countries.
Increased out-of-pocket expenditure, under-resourced and strained health workforces, and the need for strengthening core country capacity and capabilities for issues, such as pandemic preparedness, remain key challenges on the road to 2030.
Globally, health systems continue to be underfinanced, with estimates from the World Bank indicating that in 2030, there will be a 176 billion US dollar annual gap in healthcare budgets for the world’s 54 poorest countries, translating into a shortfall in the funding needed to provide populations with quality, affordable services.
Health financing gap
Commonwealth Health Ministers and the Commonwealth Secretariat have made tackling the health financing gap a priority. At the last meeting of the Health Ministers in May 2022, Ministers called for increased investment in health, including human resourcing, to strengthen the resilience of their health systems.
During the meeting, Ministers will discuss the role of Primary Health Care (PHC) in achieving UHC and other health-related goals, in acknowledgement that 90 per cent of essential UHC interventions can be delivered through PHC.
This includes identifying approaches to better integrate mental health services within PHC settings, an area of care delivery that is often fragmented and under-resourced, as well as efforts to harness digital health technologies for improving the quality and access of services.
The opportunities and challenges relating to building national and subnational capacity and capabilities for Pandemic Prevention, Preparedness and Response (PPPR), particularly as a basis for both UHC and health security, will also be explored.
Understanding the lessons learnt on issues such as building resilience, addressing inequities and effective emergency responses is critical, as countries continue to recover from the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. It will also be key in ensuring countries are better equipped for future emergencies.
The Commonwealth was early to recognise the need for better pandemic preparedness. At the Commonwealth Health Ministers Meeting in 2019, months before COVID began, Ministers discussed all these issues, including how the world was not ready for a pandemic and how the world’s poorest would struggle to access vital countermeasures like vaccines and personal protective equipment (PPE).
Ministers heard from experts about the need to establish programmes like contact tracing and strengthening community care under a UHC approach to cater for the hardest to reach.
Commonwealth COVID-19 response
CHMM meetings continued, virtually, throughout the pandemic, under the spirit of cooperation and coordination. The first, in 2020, was held under the theme: “Delivering a coordinated Commonwealth COVID-19 response”. Ministers called for a coordinated, multi-agency and multi-sectoral response in addressing the disease, with collaborative action to remove barriers to accessing jabs, ventilators and PPE, and for finding finance solutions to fund testing and vaccine programmes and COVID treatment research.
Speaking about this period, the Commonwealth Secretary-General, Rt Hon Patricia Scotland KC, said:
“I said in 2019 and 2020 that we were all in the same storm, but we were definitely not in the same boat. And so, one of the big issues for us was how that equity should be delivered.
And through the Commonwealth Health Ministers Meeting which took place in the first few months of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, we brought together all our health ministers to share what worked and what didn't work.”
The Commonwealth led the way in finding collaborative solutions to the pandemic and lessons were learnt. Many countries were able to better respond to the pandemic due to their efforts in health system resiliency and working towards UHC. The Commonwealth has the tools to find and scale-up solutions more rapidly when the next pandemic hits. Although, challenges do remain.
35th Commonwealth Health Ministers Meeting
Some of these challenges will be explored by Health Ministers at this week’s meeting, with climate change also factoring into the rising incidents of tropical diseases, and loss of biodiversity threatening to accelerate the arrival of the next pandemic.
Building an integrated agenda that incorporates evidence-based and sustainable solutions to address the interconnected challenges, of health and climate, in addition to addressing food insecurity and poverty, will be important. These issues are particularly worrying in the 33 small states in the Commonwealth.
The discussions will continue through to the UN High-Level Meeting on UHC, which will take place in September this year.
- Amy Coles Communications Officer, Communications Division, Commonwealth Secretariat