In 1948, at the World Health Assembly, 7 April was decided upon as a day to celebrate World Health Day to bring to remembrance certain key areas the World Health Organisation (WHO) would like to highlight each year. Thus, since 1950, World Health Day has become an annual celebration.
While there is a global unanimity in the commemoration of this day, the fact remains that not everyone across the globe is positioned to have an equal access health services. Some people can live healthier lives and have better access to healthcare solely because of the countries in which they are born or where they live; while others struggle to live healthy lives due to meagre incomes, poor housing, gender inequality, and a myriad of other factors causing preventable illnesses and premature death. This situation is not only unjust, it is largely avoidable.
Certain social factors such as income level, gender, and even ethnicity have been attributed to contributing to disparities in health outcomes. According to the WHO, children are 14 times more likely to die before their fifth birthday in sub-Saharan Africa than anywhere else in the world. It is such disheartening disparities that led the WHO to place a demand on nations to prioritise bridging the gap of health inequities. It is not uncommon to find low- and middle-income countries having poor health indices, thus portraying the problems of health inequities solely as the burden of these countries to bear, and absolving other countries that have better health indices.
Lessons from COVID-19
In December 2019, the COVID-19 outbreak started in Wuhan. In about three months, it had spread across the globe and was declared a pandemic. The saying that the world is a global village has never been truer since the pandemic began. From China, throughout all of Asia, Europe, Africa, and across the globe, the virus spread like a chemical chain reaction.
In the wake of this, we began to realise how connected our worlds are – how co-dependent we are, despite the sovereignty of our nations. The health outcomes in a particular locale could have a ripple effect on the entire globe. It, therefore, becomes imperative to work together to build a fairer and healthier world.
The pandemic has not only revealed the health inequities in our society, but it has also amplified its voice. The pandemic has had such a devastating impact on health outcomes, pushing many into unemployment and poverty, food insecurities, and worsening health inequities globally.
The factors exacerbating these health inequities include poor access to healthcare, weak social assistance programmes, poor housing facilities, and lack of hygiene facilities. According to a recent study, in 17 developing countries, 70 per cent of households had at least one family member who had lost a job. Several studies across the globe also show indications of rising food prices, thus worsening food insecurities. The pandemic is said to have doubled the number of those who are on the verge of starvation.
With the advent of the COVID-19 vaccine, there seems to be a light at the end of the tunnel. Vaccination against COVID-19 is currently ongoing across the globe. However, vaccine administration and accessibility are still very skewed towards developed countries. Less than 2 per cent of the entire population of the African continent has received the COVID-19 vaccine.
The distribution of the vaccine is one in which the African continent, had to wait long on an even longer queue before getting vaccines. Currently, less than 1 per cent of the Nigerian population has been vaccinated, as opposed to 19 per cent of the American population, further reiterating the already existent inequality in distribution. There is also a forecasted problem with vaccine storage facilities in African countries, which could further skew the distribution away from the African continent.
Several calls have been made to developed countries to assist developing countries in improving access to COVID-19 vaccines. Health inequalities will continue to worsen if interventions are not made to tackle this.
The onus to build a fairer and healthier world lies on us all. The attainment by all people of the highest possible level of health is a fundamental human right that should not be defined by race, gender, socio-economic status, or culture. Every human being should be given a fair chance at living a healthy life.
There most certainly will be a greater impact if governments and organisations can work closely with communities and individuals who are affected by these great disparities in health to tackle the causes of these inequities and proffer sustainable solutions to them. Such coordinated actions on all fronts will afford members of these communities a chance at living healthier lives.
The government will also need to be actively involved in data collection, without bias towards gender, age, income, education, migratory status, or disability. This will make it easier to identify areas of greatest needs and inequalities across population subgroups, allowing timely and impactful interventions. Data collection must be reliable enough to drive effective solutions on time.
Data collection can be rigorous and resource-intensive; hence partnership will be an invaluable tool for getting the work done and efficiently so. Each country has to work intra-nationally to tackle inequities by investing in primary health care. Access to healthcare must be made available to all. Such intervention will improve health indices among the local population and better position countries to contribute to tackling equities among the global population. Building a fairer, healthier community, state, or country will contribute to building a fairer, healthier world.
Finally, all countries must see one another as members of the same team, if we are to build a fairer, healthier world. It therefore becomes unrealistic to build a fairer, healthier state or country as a standalone, without thinking of other countries and communities.
In 2019, when the ongoing COVID broke out in Wuhan, it was easy to consider it as a Chinese virus. Today, the virus is in every country, a global virus. If the pandemic taught us a vital lesson, it is that when we treat the health outcomes in communities or countries as segregates, we become more vulnerable to the ripple effects of health inequities.
Health outcomes in different communities must be seen as aggregates, as determinants of an overall. Inequities must be fought globally, as a team – each country helping the other, each individual concerned for the other, each government, aiding the other; so our systems can synchronise to achieve a fairer, healthier world.
In marking this year’s World Health Day, everyone across the globe is invited to join in this campaign to build a fairer, healthier world, bearing in mind that, together, nothing is unachievable. Together, health can be equitable.
By Pharm Temiwunmi Akinmuleya
(Young Pharmacists Group, Lagos)