In the world prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, one could say that we have made great progress in the fight against leading causes of death and illness. Globally, life expectancy has dramatically increased, as maternal and child mortality rates have declined. However, even then the world was not on track to achieve the health-related SDGs; with a 31-year gap between countries with the shortest and longest life-expectancy, and national averages failing to include those who have been left behind. Although the 2030 Agenda prioritises the development of the health sector in order to achieve sustainable development through investing in human capital, good health is challenged by economic and social inequalities, rapid urbanisation, and even the environment.
The human right to health has always been held sacred across civilisations, dating back to 539BC, and continuing today through various cultures and religions. Today, we see the human right to health enshrined globally in various international documents, such as the World Health Organisation Constitution (WHO, 1946), the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR, 1948), and International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR, 1966).
In order to achieve Good Health and Well-being, every human is entitled access to basic health services and essential medicines, among other rights, such as education, clean water and sanitation, food & nutrition, information, privacy and freedom. These entitlements and rights can only be achieved when states are obliged to respect, protect and fulfil those rights using the human-rights based approach by ensuring Availability, Accessibility, Acceptability and Quality of all public health programmes and health-care facilities, according to General Comments 14 to the CESCR (2000).
Since the characterisation of COVID-19 as a pandemic, it has become even more challenging to protect health through human rights. While technologies, such as those used for digital transformation, have shown to be an effective response to champion the ‘social distancing’ measure, not everyone in the world has access to them. This inequality can also be observed in countries with limited resources that are unable to purchase or even produce necessary tools needed to respond to the pandemic, as demand for personal protective equipment (PPE – such as masks and gloves), medical devices (such as ventilators) and diagnostics increase exponentially.
One way the UN is helping close this gap is by launching the Tech Access Partnership (TAP). “Now, more than ever, the global community needs to unite to save lives and secure sustainable futures. Inequalities are exacerbating the technology and digital divide…,” says Amina J. Mohammed, Deputy Secretary-General of the UN. Now more than ever, accessibility to technologies should be increased through partnerships, as it is a crucial component of the United Nations’ health, humanitarian and socio-economic response to COVID-19.
On the other hand, using technology comes with its own set of challenges, as some are more complex to deploy humanely, such as tracing infections and surveillance, while adhering to international human rights guidelines. However, despite the varying digital technologies available in countries, mobile health innovation can help tackle COVID-19, as shown by this UN Volunteer in Africa who works among more than half a million Online Volunteers to fight the virus during lockdown through UNV.
Coronavirus (COVID-19) is the “greatest test since World War Two”, as described by the United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres. “Let us remember that we are only as strong as the weakest health system in our interconnected world.” We can only fight this crisis together – countries are helping one another with medical supplies, companies are giving free access to their digital tools, and volunteers are helping vulnerable people in their communities. The UN has declared the next ten years the Decade of Action to meet all 17 Sustainable Development Goals, and while the coronavirus has added another layer of complexity, it also represents an opportunity to create a healthier and more equal world.