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World Health Day in a time of crisis

Globe with a stethoscope.. World Health Day illustration.
Image credit: olegdudko / 123rf

Today marks World Health Day – an observance the world marks this year in the context of the global pandemic of coronavirus. Cases of COVID-19 – the disease caused by severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) or coronavirus – are rising sharply globally. India has reported thousands of infections and well in excess of 100 deaths. 

“Today on [World Health Day], let us not only pray for each other’s good health and well-being but also reaffirm our gratitude towards all those doctors, nurses, medical staff and healthcare workers who are bravely leading the battle against the COVID-19 menace,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted. His adulation of healthcare workers is especially apposite given that the theme of World Health Day 2020 is “the need to support nurses and midwives.” The release by the World Health Organization (WHO) of a landmark report on the State of the World’s Nursing underscores this. 

Coronavirus has dominated the discourse surrounding global health – unsurprisingly so, given the WHO’s declaration of a global pandemic and a global case count that exceeds one million cases with a corresponding death toll well in excess of 75,000. Modi also utilised the occasion of World Health Day to appeal that “[we] ensure we follow practices like social distancing which will protect our own lives as well as the lives of others. May this day also inspire us towards focusing on personal fitness through the year, which would help improve our overall health.” 

Even with the understandable focus on COVID-19 in the present public health discourse, it is important to remember that the world faces a broad-ranging plethora of issues. These affect global health and development in manifold ways and threaten the attainment of the Sustainable Development Goals. 

Noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and lung conditions (i.e. chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) exert a major impact on health systems worldwide. Communicable diseases including COVID-19, HIV/AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis, neglected tropical diseases such as leprosy, and conditions such as acute diarrhoeal disease (exacting an especially pronounced toll among vulnerable populations such as children) remain particular challenges for low- and middle-income countries – including India. Diseases where eradication is within sight such as polio must continue to be the focus of targeted efforts by relevant stakeholders to rid the world of them for good. 

A HIV/AIDS awareness banner in Patna, Bihar. Infectious conditions such as HIV/AIDS continue to major public health challenges even in the era of World Health Day.

This is not to mention the range of indicators which affect health and wellbeing. In the example of malnutrition, India is no stranger given its dual burden of the condition – including among young people. The country sees malnourishment account for almost seventy percent of child deaths, with relatively high rates of stunting and wasting which plague the lives of those they affect far beyond their nascent years. 

At the same time, obesity has emerged as a major challenge. For children, to be overweight or obese is to amplify the risk of lifelong complications such as chronic diseases. Obesity is only anticipated to worsen as a public health challenge, with there expected to be more than 27 million obese Indian children alone by 2030 – compared to eleven million at present. 

India has made progress on many of its health indicators – maternal and infant mortality, for example, have reduced. As previously reported by Health Issues India, “India’s under-five mortality rate is 37 deaths per 100,000 births as of 2018; in 1990, the figure stood at 126 deaths per 100,000 births. This translates to an annual reduction rate of 3.5 percent. Its neonatal mortality rate has declined also, from 57 deaths per 100,000 live births in 1990 to 23 deaths per 100,000 live births in 2018.” 

The toll of tuberculosis in the country has fallen considerably as has the toll due to HIV/AIDS. India has made strides towards improving sanitation indicators such as through Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. 

In the area of combating NCDs and malnutrition, efforts promoting physical fitness and healthy diets have been promoted by the Government in recent years. And, it should not be ignored, Indian life expectancy has increased. 

Coronavirus in world. Novel coronavirus 2019-nCoV. Concept of coronavirus with flag of India. Illustration of COVID-19 case count.
COVID-19 highlights the importance of a robust health system – amplifying the messages of World Health Day.

Yet even in the areas where India has made progress, it has farther still to go in many others. To effectively combat its health issues, India must continue to work towards a robust health sector – one capable of managing both its burden of NCDs and communicable diseases. 

Achieving this will include strengthening efforts to boost health sector funding and plugging the gap of healthcare workers – with India’s low doctor-patient ratio having languished for a considerable amount of time now. It will also require sustained efforts to combat threats such as air pollution and environmental degradation that negatively affect health; tackling social issues such socioeconomic inequalities between states and the country’s gender gap which obstruct progress on health issues; and maintaining the fight for everything ranging from improved sanitation to affordable, accessible, and high-quality healthcare (an issue India, even with Ayushman Bharat, continues to struggle with). 

The positioning of World Health Day 2020 in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis reinforces why strong health systems are the need of the hour. COVID-19 is not the sole health issue the world faces. The pandemic notwithstanding, World Health Day provides a chance for nations to appraise their public landscape and look to solutions to the challenges they face. COVID-19 underscores why this is of such importance. When World Health Day is observed next year, will countries have heeded its call?  

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