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SDIS21: Healthy Futures - What are the challenges in making healthcare more sustainable?

A nurse prepares a dose of the vaccine against coronavirus disease (COVID-19) at a mass immunization venue inside Cairo University, in Cairo, Egypt, September 8, 2021. REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany - RC2MLP9TITJV

After decades of progress, COVID-19 set us back on achieving our health targets. What's next? Image: REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany

Samantha Sault
Writer, Washington DC and Geneva
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Healthy Futures

This article is part of: Sustainable Development Impact Summit
  • In addition to exacerbating illness and causing death, the COVID-19 pandemic set back progress on many SDG 3 targets.
  • As we emerge from the pandemic, climate change is a big threat to global health.
  • Access to healthcare services remains a major priority going forward.
  • The Forum hosts its annual Sustainable Development Impact Summit on 20-23 September.

In recent years, the world had made substantial progress on Sustainable Development Goal 3 targets - good health and well-being - but COVID-19 threw us far off track.

Firstly, the pandemic itself: 225 million cases and 4.6 million deaths worldwide (as of this writing) and rising as more contagious variants spread. In the US, this led to a reduction in life expectancy of 1.87 years on average – with greater reductions among people of color. And although we developed effective vaccines and therapeutics in record time, vaccine inequality and misinformation/disinformation have kept shots out of the arms of too many.

The pandemic has halted or reversed progress in health and shortened life expectancy.
The pandemic has halted or reversed progress in health and shortened life expectancy. Image: UN

Meanwhile, the pandemic's impact continues to multiply. With disruptions to health services worldwide, we’ve seen a "third wave" of loss of people suffering from non-COVID diseases, like cancer and rare disease, according to Forum experts, along with new outbreaks of preventable diseases like measles. Over-prescription of antibiotics has accelerated the need to address antimicrobial resistance. Lockdowns, fear and grief have created a surge in anxiety, depression and other mental health concerns.

The role of sustainable health will be addressed at the Forum's virtual Sustainable Development Impact Summit 2021 on 20-23 September.

Pandemic causes spike in anxiety and depression
The COVID crisis created a mental health crisis. Image: Statista

And with a disproportionately devastating impact on communities of color, the elderly and society's most vulnerable, the virus has highlighted “the structural weaknesses of not only our economic systems, but also, more critically, our health systems,” as World Economic Forum experts put it. This includes healthcare workers, who are in dire shortage and facing mental health crises themselves.

Have you read?

As the pandemic continues, we’re now facing another, potentially more destructive health crisis: climate change. We know the coronavirus was caused in part by our increasingly unsustainable relationship with nature – and air pollution is linked to greater risk of COVID infection and death. Beyond COVID, rising temperatures, biodiversity loss, water pollution and extreme weather events will continue to cause harm not only to the planet but also to human health and longevity – yet another reason why addressing climate must be part of the COVID-19 response.

Air Pollution – The Silent Killer
Air pollution is one of our greatest health threats. Image: WHO

Sustainable Development Goal 3: Good Health and Well-Being

SDG 3 is ambitious, setting out to reduce or eliminate a number of health-related problems, including:

  • Maternal mortality and preventable deaths of newborns and young children.
  • Communicable diseases like AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria, as well as deaths from non-communicable diseases, substance abuse and mental illness.
  • Ensuring universal health coverage, and especially access to reproductive health services.
  • The health impacts of the environment, including hazardous chemicals, pollution and climate change.

How much progress has been made?

“Many health indicators were moving in the right direction before the threat of COVID-19 emerged,” says the UN's Sustainable Development Goal Report 2021. “Maternal and child health had improved, immunization coverage had increased and communicable diseases had been reduced, although not fast enough to achieve the 2030 targets” – numbers highlighted this time last year.

Now, much of that progress could be stalled or reversed, says the report.

A decade of progress stalled or reversed by COVID-19
A decade of progress on SDG 3 could be stalled or reversed by COVID-19. Image: UN

“In 2020, 35% of countries reported interruptions in reproductive, maternal, newborn, child and adolescent health services, along with nutrition services,” contributing to as many as 228,000 additional child deaths and 11,000 additional maternal deaths in 2020 in South Asia alone.

Prior to 2020, we saw steady reductions in mortality from both communicable (HIV, TB, malaria) and non-communicable diseases (cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes) – but, here, too, COVID caused disruptions in routine care. For example, an estimated 1.4 million fewer people received essential care for TB in 2020 compared to 2019 – a 21% reduction.

Potential increase in AIDS-related deaths due to HIV treatment disruption in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic
Disruptions in HIV treatment will likely lead to more deaths. Image: The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria

“In the first three months of 2021, between 30% and 40% of malaria-endemic countries reported some level of disruption to services involving malaria diagnosis and treatment. A 10% disruption in access to effective treatment in sub-Saharan Africa could lead to 19,000 additional deaths," the UN report notes.

Above all, these challenges underline the need to make more progress on achieving universal health coverage (UHC) – which is essential to beat COVID-19, as well as reduce inequality and poverty. Prior to the pandemic, improvements in UHC were seen across the board, with significant progress made in sub-Saharan Africa between 2000-2017.

As we work towards expanding UHC, we should take lessons and insights learned from the past year and a half – such as the important role of digital healthcare and data in healthcare delivery.


How is the World Economic Forum bringing data-driven healthcare to life?

What are the World Economic Forum and its partners doing to create healthy futures?

  • In March 2020, the Forum launched the COVID Action Platform – the first platform of its kind – to galvanize the global business community to take collective action, protect livelihoods and facilitate business continuity, and mobilize cooperation and business support for the COVID-19 response.
  • An initiative of the London School of Economics (LSE), the World Economic Forum (WEF) and AstraZeneca, the Partnership for Health System Sustainability and Resilience aims to improve health and health systems by advancing new models of care, to innovative financing mechanisms and breakthrough technologies.
  • Hosted by the World Bank Group and the World Health Organization, UHC2030 is the only global health partnership to engage the private sector, governments, civil society and international organization stakeholders. The Forum hosts a platform for the private sector to exchange ideas and collaborate on UHC.
  • Additional Forum projects focus on precision medicine, workplace tuberculosis and mental healthcare, eliminating malaria by 2030 and much more.

What can I do to create healthy futures?

  • Get fully vaccinated for COVID-19 as soon as I’m able to do so, and ensure other, routine vaccinations for myself and my children are up to date. Make a plan to get the flu vaccine to ensure hospitals aren’t overrun with influenza as the pandemic continues.
  • Continue to practice social distancing and wear a face mask when appropriate, especially in crowded, indoor areas where there might be vulnerable or unvaccinated people.
  • Thank medical professionals and essential workers who have put their health and the health of their loved ones at risk during the pandemic.
  • Encourage my company to prioritize health investments and partnerships, as well as the mental health of employees and stakeholders.
  • Speak out against economic and social disparities that lead to inequitable access to healthcare.
  • Take steps to reduce my impact on the planet so I don’t contribute further to climate change.
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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

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Forum InstitutionalHealth and Healthcare SystemsWellbeing and Mental Health
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