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The COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic indicated more than ever the need to strengthen national health systems’ preparedness and capacities, and to ensure continuity of essential health services, particularly for women, children, and adolescents.

Achieving Universal Health Coverage (UHC) is at the core of these efforts. The World Bank Group (WBG) is supporting countries’ efforts towards this goal and to provide quality, affordable health services to everyone —regardless of their ability to pay — by strengthening primary health care systems and reducing the financial risks associated with ill health and increasing equity.

The latest World Bank/World Health Organization research shows that already before the pandemic more than half a billion people were pushed or further pushed into extreme poverty because they had to pay for health services out of their own pockets. The COVID-19 pandemic is likely to make the situation worse and halt two decades of global progress towards Universal Health Coverage.

In addition, by disrupting the delivery of essential health services, the pandemic threatens to reverse years of hard-won gains in health and human capital outcomes, especially for the most vulnerable groups such as women, children, and adolescents. Ensuring that every woman and child has access to health care is also fundamental to ending poverty, building robust economies, and achieving UHC.

The Global Financing Facility for Women, Children and Adolescents (GFF), a multi-stakeholder partnership hosted at the World Bank has been supporting countries with the world’s highest maternal and child mortality burden and financial needs. Since the GFF was founded in 2015, partner countries have made significant progress to improve maternal and child health.

The World Bank is the single largest funder of the global COVID-19 health response with $14 billion committed to over 100 countries, including in over 30 countries impacted by fragility, conflict and violence.

COVID-19 has also brought social isolation, financial hardship, and interrupted health care services – which are negatively impacting the mental well-being of people. A March 2022 WHO report indicates that during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, global prevalence of anxiety and depression increased by 25 percent.

Recent estimates indicate that, in 2020, governments worldwide spent on average just over 2 percent of their health budgets on mental health and many low-income countries reported having fewer than 1 mental health worker per 100 000 people. The World Bank is supporting efforts to put mental health at the center of global health, in addition to as an integral element of human capital accumulation.

The burden of non-communicable diseases (NCDs), such as cancer, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes is growing. NCDs are the cause of 70 percent of deaths globally, with most of these deaths occurring in low- and middle-income countries. Despite advances in reducing communicable diseases, rates remain high in many parts of the world for malnutrition, unmet need for sexual and reproductive health services, and maternal mortality.

While globally the incidence of infectious diseases has declined since 2000, they continue to have major health and economic costs. Health systems in many countries are also confronting challenges caused by pandemics, aging populations, and a growing burden of lifestyle diseases.

More than ever, pandemic preparedness and disease surveillance anchored in strong health systems that reach everyone—especially the most vulnerable—are crucial to ensure better protection from major disease outbreaks. A recent World Bank report charts an agenda toward reimagined, fit-for-purpose primary health care. It reflects a renewed understanding of global and local vulnerabilities and opportunities in the post-COVID world.

Investing in strengthening primary health systems and pandemic preparedness and other infectious disease outbreaks is also one of the best ways to contain anti-microbial resistance (AMR). Preparing before a crisis strikes saves lives and ultimately saves money.

While UHC is crucial to building human capital and central to an effective response and recovery from the pandemic, strong primary health care services are also essential to preventing, detecting, and managing diseases, as well as promote health.

Last Updated: Sep 30, 2022

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