Health costs during Covid push over 500m people into poverty

Pandemic made things worse with immunisation coverage dropping for the first time in ten years. [Courtesy]

More than half a billion people globally were further pushed into extreme poverty last year, as they paid for health costs out of their own pockets during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, the World Health Organisation and the World Bank said yesterday.

The two entities noted that the pandemic disrupted health services globally and triggered the worst economic crisis since the 1930s, making it even more difficult for people to pay for healthcare.

The findings are contained in two complementary reports, launched on Universal Health Coverage Day, highlighting the devastating impact of Covid-19 on people’s ability to obtain health care and pay for it.

“There is no time to spare,” said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. "All governments must immediately resume and accelerate efforts to ensure every one of their citizens can access health services without fear of the financial consequences."

Tedros urged governments to increase their focus on health care systems and stay on course towards universal health coverage, which the WHO defines as everyone getting access to health services they need without financial hardship.

In 2020, the pandemic disrupted health services and stretched countries’ health systems beyond their limits as they struggled to deal with the impact of coronavirus disease.

As a result, for example, immunisation coverage dropped for the first time in ten years, and deaths from TB and malaria increased.

Even before the pandemic, half a billion people were being pushed (or pushed still further) into extreme poverty because of payments they made for health care.

The organisations expect that number to be considerably higher. The new WHO/World Bank reports also warned that financial hardships are likely to become more intense as poverty grows, incomes fall, and governments face tighter fiscal constraints.

“Even before the Covid-19 struck, almost a billion people were spending more than 10 per cent of their household budget on health,” said Juan Pablo Uribe, Global Director for Health, Nutrition and Population at the World Bank.

“This is not acceptable, especially since the poorest people are hit hardest. Within a constrained fiscal space, governments will have to make tough choices to protect and increase health budgets.”

Healthcare is a major political issue in the US, one of the few industrialised countries that do not have universal coverage for its citizens.

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