Religious Sister calls on government to devote more overseas aid money to healthcare

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By Sister Gillian Price FC,  on Universal Health Coverage Day (12/12/18)

Harry Leslie Smith (who died 28 November, aged 95) often spoke of his childhood. Born in 1923 he said: "My childhood, like so many others from that era, was not an episode from Downton Abbey.

"Instead, it was a barbarous time. It was a bleak time. It was an uncivilized time because public healthcare didn't exist.… No one in our community was safe from poor health, sickness and disease. In our home, TB came for my oldest sister, Marion, who was the apple of my dad's eye. Her sickness and his inability to pay for medicine broke his heart."

Marion died in the workhouse infirmary and was buried nameless in a pauper's grave.

Harry said: "My family's story isn't unique. Rampant poverty and no health care were the norm for the Britain of my youth….Today my heart is with all of those people from my generation who didn't make it past childhood, didn't get an education, didn't grow as individuals, didn't marry, didn't raise a family and didn't enjoy the fruits of retirement. They died needlessly and too early."

This year the UK celebrated 70 years of the NHS. Today we benefit from the decision of the government of the post war generation to provide a National Health Service which provides healthcare to all permanent residents of the United Kingdom that is free at the point of use and paid for from general taxation.

Essential health services encompass everything from health promotion to prevention, treatment, rehabilitation and palliative care throughout the course of a lifetime. The sad reality of the present time is that at least half of the world's population does not have full coverage of essential health services, and each year about 100 million people are pushed into "extreme poverty" (defined as living on US $1.90 or less a day) because they have to pay for health care. Fragile and conflict-affected states have seen the resurgence of diseases such as cholera and typhoid. Struggling health systems, insufficient progress on malnutrition, and high disease burdens remain serious challenges, and many of the most marginalised and remote communities are still denied effective health services.

5.6 million children still die before reaching their fifth birthday.

The international community has set itself ambitious targets to ensure healthy lives for all, aiming for 'Universal Health Coverage' (UHC) by 2030, and to deliver the promise of the Global Goals to 'leave no one behind'. Wednesday 12th December is Universal Health Coverage day. Universal health coverage is defined as where 'every person, no matter who they are, where they live or how much money they have should be able to access quality health services without suffering financial hardship.'

On May 23rd 2018 Archbishop Ivan Jurkovic, the Vatican observer to the United Nation agencies in Geneva spoke at a meeting of the member states of the World Health Organisation gathered to set WHO policies and programmes. The need for universal health care coverage was a major topic at the May 21-26 meeting, and Abp Jurkovic thanked the UN leadership "for keeping it as a top priority on the agenda of the World Health Organization." "For many poor communities, families and individuals, access to the much-needed health care services remains an unachieved objective" he said, adding that, "Progress on universal health coverage requires a strong political will and a commitment to concrete steps that improve health for all people." 

The UK has long been a leader on global health, for example, as a leading donor to organisations such as Gavi, The Vaccine Alliance, and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria. It funds extensive nutrition and food security programmes around the world. And Dfid's support helps countries to strengthen and increasingly take ownership of their own health services.

However, UK aid priorities appear to be changing to focus more on security and economic development, creating a real risk that human development programmes - such as those that fund health and education - will be reduced. In August the Prime Minister, Theresa May said that aid must be in the UK's national interest, helping countries grow their economies, create jobs and fight insecurity. She called these new priorities "a fundamental strategic shift in the way we use our aid programme".

While economic development has been a major factor in more than halving poverty rates since the 1990s, evidence shows that countries that provide health and education services improve their economic development. When people are healthy families, communities and economies can reach their full potential.

It is essential that the British government’s Department for International Development’s spending on global health is increased as a proportion of its overall budget, with UK spending on global health rising to 0.1% of Gross National Income (GNI). The stakes are high for the world's poorest. Failure to focus UK aid spending sufficiently on global health risks a reversal of the progress that has been made.

"Justice requires guaranteed universal access to health care," said Pope Benedict while Pope Francis has said that 'health care is denied to too many people" in too many places "it is not a right for all, but rather still a privilege for those who can afford it".

The theme for the 2018 Universal Health Coverage day is: 'Unite for International Health coverage day: Now is the time for collective action'. Archbishop Ivan Jurkovic put it another way when he said: "Since everyone should have the possibility of benefiting from necessary health services without falling into poverty, the virtue of solidarity urges us to work toward this goal."

Sr Gillian Price tweets : @GillianFC