Healthcare is a right, not a privilege

April 7, 2021 | 03:10 am PT
Nitin Kapoor Chairman and general director of AstraZeneca Vietnam
Achieving universal healthcare, while being a noble pursuit, is not without challenges, especially amid the coronavirus pandemic. To do that, global cooperation is essential.

Around this time last year when Covid-19 first affected communities globally and in Vietnam, as a resident in Vietnam, I remember following the Vietnamese government’s daily briefings and feeling so moved when it was announced: central quarantine at government facilities would provisionally be free for all.

Foreign visitors and expats would only have to pay for hospital fees if they tested positive with coronavirus, and everyone would be treated equally and with dignity. At peak periods, there were easily more than 50,000 people in quarantine at different locations, so the costs that the government was shouldering must have been significant.

At the time, I was living and working in Ho Chi Minh City alone, away from my wife and two daughters who remained in the U.K. due to travel restrictions for an additional few months. I could sympathize with other foreigners in a similar situation, battling with the danger and uncertainty amidst the pandemic without a physically present support system. And hence the humane and inclusive policies enacted by the Vietnamese government, such as this temporary one, provided crucial support for vulnerable groups and deserve praise across the world.

As the theme of the World Health Day today is "Building a fairer, healthier world," I have been reflecting on how governments and businesses alike play critical roles in ensuring the accessibility and fairness of healthcare.

The World Health Organization (WHO), the specialized agency of the United Nations responsible for international public health, was officially founded on this day in 1948. Its constitution affirms that "the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health is one of the fundamental rights of every human being without distinction of race, religion, political belief, economic or social condition."

Healthcare for all, or universal healthcare, is a noble pursuit that is not without challenges, as we’ve seen highlighted during Covid-19. We live in an unequal world where access to healthcare is oftentimes dependent upon one’s socioeconomic conditions. Although the world as well as Vietnam have seen great improvements in key health indicators in the last few decades, there are opportunities to better ensure health equity.

A medic holds a box of AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine vials. Photo by AFP/Alain Jocard.

A medic holds a box of AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine vials. Photo by AFP/Alain Jocard.

In the recently published report on the "Sustainability and Resilience in the Vietnamese Health System," authored by the Health Strategy and Policy Institute (HSPI) - Vietnam Ministry of Health, as part of the Partnership for Health System Sustainability and Resilience (PHSSR) between the World Economic Forum, London School of Economics and AstraZeneca, health experts acknowledge efforts of the Vietnamese government and Ministry of Health to expand universal health coverage, and present several practical policy recommendations to strengthen Vietnam’s health system.

As Vietnam has a fast aging population and non-communicable diseases (NCD) which account for 77 percent of all deaths, as WHO reported in 2018, the government recognizes that the key to building a sustainable health system is enhancing disease awareness, prevention, and early detection through primary healthcare.

The last five years have seen multiple government initiatives implemented to shift healthcare from hospital-based to primary healthcare at the grassroots level, which includes service providers at the district and commune levels. This direction is seen as the right way forward and deserves larger investments.

When we have a robust, well-funded grassroots health network, a mom having a sick child living in the countryside can simply bring him to a nearby health clinic for treatment, instead of traveling a few hours to an upper-level hospital. The accessibility gap between different regions will begin to close.

The report also outlines the fair health financing policies that are in place to provide support where people most need it. For example, in 2020, 90.85 percent of Vietnam’s population have been covered by social health insurance and are entitled to fairly comprehensive benefit packages. The Law on Health Insurance stipulates that vulnerable groups such as people living in poverty or ethnic minorities, etc. are covered 100 percent for medical examinations and treatments. However, private health insurance and other financial mechanisms need to be encouraged to reduce the pressure on state budget.

This leads to another main takeaway from the report about the importance of public-private partnerships (PPPs). "Its aim is to simultaneously reduce burden on the public sector and ensure broad access to quality treatment in the context of growing healthcare needs," the report writes.

As a leader of AstraZeneca Vietnam, I see PPPs as the backbone of our business to enable the sharing of diverse and complementary resources towards a mutual goal – achieving better health outcomes for more patients – in a shorter time. I’m heartened to see many governments, organizations and businesses coming together for the common good during Covid-19, despite the divisive tendency of crises.

While we continue to partner with the Ministry of Health, British and Swedish Embassies and healthcare institutions to reduce NCD burden and promote sustainability in local communities through the Healthy Lung Program, Young Health Program, Green Energy for Health, our Covid-19 vaccine, developed in cooperation with the University of Oxford, has provided protection from this deadly virus for more than 100 million people in more than 100 countries, through bilateral deals or Covax, regardless of their income level.

So, if our collective goal is to build a fairer, healthier society in a post-Covid era, cross-sectoral, cross-border cooperation is more important than ever. As no one is safe until everyone is safe, we all share the responsibility to care for one another.

Each gesture, program or policy that demonstrate kindness and equality will go a long way in not only ensuring vital care for the communities they serve, but inspiring others to do their part in times of hardships.

*Nitin Kapoor is the chairman and general director of AstraZeneca Vietnam. The opinions expressed are his own.

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