Delegates from around the World Health Organization’s (WHO) member states are convening these days at the 69th World Health Assembly (WHA) to determine the organization’s policies and agree on a proposed budget. Indeed, this is one of the most consequential global health gatherings where top issues are discussed and potential developments are addressed.
This year, the discussion is of particular importance in light of recent adoption of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, in particular Goal #3 to “Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages.” Undoubtedly, this is a noble goal, one that aims to reduce infant and maternal mortality, as well as deaths from malaria, TB, Aids and non-communicable diseases. The purpose is to “achieve universal health coverage, including financial risk protection, [and] access to quality essential health-care services…”
The fact that financial risk protection was included in the health-related sustainable goal, serves to underscore the importance of securing essential financing mechanism for the attainment of good health.
Access to good and affordable healthcare is essential. This is particularly true in developing countries for two reasons: First, low and lower-middle income countries bear 84% of the world´s communicable disease burden, which are almost entirely preventable. But even rates of prevalence of non-communicable diseases (NCD) have increased in these poor countries and their links to diminished economic development is only recently being addressed. These findings indicate that there is a greater need for resource allocation towards treatment of NCD even in growing economies at both the micro and macro levels. Beyond the high mortality and morbidity rates caused by these diseases, the economic consequences and losses due to loss of productivity and absenteeism due to care for the sick is enormous. Furthermore, these diseases are hindering human development through their negative impact on earning ability, education and overall health condition. Second, poor populations, and especially women, are particularly vulnerable to unexpected negative health event in the absence of affordable care as they often lack sufficient safety nets. Their ability to smooth their income in the face of financial shocks is extremely limited.
Health = Economic Empowerment. But women often lack means or access to resources to guarantee good health.
According to the World Bank Global Financial Inclusion Index, only 58% of women ages 15+ have a bank account, the number drops to 26% for a savings account, and decreases to 10% for access to any formal credit. These are miniscule numbers that we can surely improve upon. In poor and developing economies, restrictions are often imposed on women from opening bank accounts as they are required to have their spouse’s permission. Female entrepreneurs and employers face significantly greater challenges than men in gaining access to bank accounts and various financial services, what closes the door on further economic opportunities. The World Bank’s Gender at Work report (2014) asserts: “On virtually every global measure, women are more economically excluded than men.”
Financial exclusion has repercussions that go beyond achieving good health as an objective in and of itself. Health is a social determinant and a vehicle for economic development and sustainable growth. Health, therefore, is not just about health – it is about education, economic empowerment and investment in families, communities and societies.
The WHA approved a resolution to strengthen the public health function by ensuring a healthy workforce and providing access to health care for all. As long as women are shunned from fully participating in financial activities, and as long as their financial security is shaky at best, countries should concurrently work towards opening paths for financial inclusion and greater health coverage for women.