More than a year after covid-19’s arrival, the disparities in global health appear to be wider than ever. While a small group of well-off countries with high rates of vaccination are slowly returning to some semblance of normal life, the majority are still struggling to tamp down outbreaks and in some cases provide basic care for those seriously ill with the virus.
Covid-19’s transformational impact on the health sector has laid bare the need for more equitable access to care and sparked strong momentum for change. The time is ripe to set a new direction for a health sector that is more financially stable and serves all the world’s population. A reworked sector must provide treatment for non-communicable diseases (NCDs) that too often receive scant attention, a neglect that has dire human and financial consequences, as the pandemic has made clear.
Rectifying health inequalities will require countries to overcome political intransigence as well as structural barriers—technological, financial and workforce related. “Building back better” has become a common refrain and better access to health care is a key step on the ladder to recovery, especially with regard to NCDs. No longer should NCDs fall victim to other pressing health demands.
A less fragmented and more integrated approach to care will be a crucial part of rebuilding health systems that are more efficient and responsive and better value for money. Frequently overlooked NCDs must be included, notably mental illness, which is expected to peak after the isolation and upheaval of a year of lockdown. Policymakers also have to take stock of the way virtual patient care has expanded during the pandemic and determine which areas can be integrated on a permanent basis to make health care provision more effective and accessible.
For global health, 2021 is a significant year. It marks 100 years of medical development since the discovery of insulin and is the year in which the roll-out of covid-19 vaccines started, at least for some countries. In our special report, we ask what we can learn from the past 100 years of extraordinary progress in medical treatment, how we can spread innovation more equitably and what the future of medicine looks like.
The development and launch in less than a year of several novel vaccines is an inspiring example of the global ability to tackle health challenges, given the will to do so. Around the world leaders need to summon a matching level of imagination and resolve to tackle the pressing need for a global health infrastructure that is fit for purpose. •
TEXT Andrea Chipman
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