(Image: Action for Global Health for World Health Day) 

By Molly Pugh-Jones, London and Southern England Regional Coordinator on the Youth Stop AIDS Steering Committee, 6th April 2020. 

Just before Covid-19 physical distancing measures arrived in the UK, Youth Stop AIDS Steering Committee members Georgie and Molly attended a Students for Global Health (SfGH) National Conference. This World Health Day, Molly reflects on the day in the context of the current Covid-19 pandemic.

The theme of the conference was ‘Universal Health Coverage’ (UHC), tackling the global issue of access to healthcare. In the first plenary session we were welcomed with the statistic that 90% of disease burden falls on lower income countries, and that these countries have only 10% of global healthcare resources. From here, speakers discussed the logistical, economic and philosophical challenges to achieving UHC.

One of the requirements to achieve UHC was flagged as adequate access to medicines. This resonated well with the work of Youth Stop AIDS and our ‘Missing Medicines’ campaign in which we campaign to ensure that everyone has equitable and accessible healthcare. To do this, we believe that attention must be paid to the role and responsibility of the pharmaceutical industry – an industry worth over $1bn in 2019. You can read the full 2018 report here, developed as part of the Missing Medicines Coalition, which suggests that an overhaul of the economic processes behind innovation and development of medicines is necessary to achieve greater equity and accessibility in healthcare. 

It was great to work with SfGH and to see a range of perspectives on how we might achieve UHC. After realising that most other attendees were medical students, I wondered whether we might be out of place. However, I think that it actually highlighted the necessity of hearing different perspectives and that to achieve UHC we must be aware of different voices – medics, activists, philosophers, economists – and to keep in conversation with one another. 

Unfortunately, these reflections are crucial just a couple of months after the conference. Covid-19 has demonstrated the precarity – and the strengths – of health systems around the world. We have a renewed appreciation for our access to healthcare through the NHS, but I argue that we should also have renewed motivation to think towards Universal Health Coverage and global access to medicines. 

It is easy to perceive Covid-19 as a nationalised pandemic with media narratives and politicians portraying information country by country. However, it is important to note that this is a global phenomenon that will increase inequalities at all scales. At a regional scale, you can take action to help those in your immediate area by joining the NHS volunteer taskforce. Globally, we must also consider the impacts of Covid-19 for low-income countries and for migrant communities.

It is also concerning to see speculation over future treatments for Covid-19 including reports of Trump’s involvement in deals with pharmaceutical companies to patent certain drugs. Medicines should be for people, not for profit – equitable and accessible for all who need them. As a global pandemic, it is essential that both political, activist, and healthcare actors work collaboratively to ensure that this can happen. We need accessible and affordable medicine, not nationalised patents and profit. 

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