Health is wealth, not wealthy

We are living in an era where even the simplest of human functions such as breathing cannot be performed freely, and interacting with other humans has also been restricted, due to the Covid-19 pandemic. In a time when millions have succumbed to this deadly virus, the importance of a healthy life and health services cannot be stressed enough, and it is almost impossible to think that a more apt time would come in our lifetime to discuss the importance of ensuring equal and fair access to health services for all persons.

Today (7) marks World Health Day 2021, and the World Health Organisation (WHO) calls for action to eliminate health inequities as part of a year-long global campaign to bring people together to build a fairer, healthier world. On this Day, the WHO emphasises their constitutional principle 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”.

After gaining Independence, Sri Lanka adopted a free health policy, and many healthcare service providing institutions were established. Over the years, the country gained recognition for the quality of services for a country that provides free healthcare services. According to World Bank (WB) statistics, the majority of the Sri Lankan population has reasonable access to a public healthcare facility, including those of the private sector, and on average, Sri Lankans are within 1.4 km of a basic health facility and 4.8 km from a free government-sponsored western medicine-type healthcare facility.

However, while Sri Lankans have every right to take pride in the existing healthcare services, the country has an undeniable responsibility to take all possible measures to see to it that all citizens who strengthen the healthcare sector by paying taxes receive satisfactory healthcare services.

Sri Lanka’s private healthcare sector plays two different roles in this matter. On the one hand, the partnership between the public and private healthcare sectors has proven to be more successful in providing quality services to the public. On the other hand, there is also an issue of medical professionals working in both the sectors, promoting the private healthcare sector over the public healthcare sector, thus leading to patients having to pay exorbitant charges to get health services.

Patients having to be in waiting lists for a long time, despite having critical health issues; the lack of awareness among medical professionals in dealing with certain service seekers such as transgender and homosexual persons and those living with mental health issues; public healthcare facilities not having sufficient medical equipment and drugs, leading to patients having to bear the cost of some drugs including expensive cancer drugs; and also occasions where even the available equipment not being put to good use such as the incident where a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) machine at a public hospital remaining unused for months are some of the issues that require interventions at the administrative (including the Ministry of Health) level as well as policy-level changes, and moreover, attitudinal changes.

Allocating more funds can solve many issues in the existing healthcare system; however, the policy-level and attitudinal changes require more time and effort, and such changes are the ones that can ensure that the increased monetary resources result in better services for the public in reality. The healthcare sector is not something the health authorities can meddle with – it is the people’s lives that they are dealing with, especially when the country is struggling to deal with a pandemic and every citizen is at risk.

After all, a country is made up not only of lands and resources but also the public, and the elected public representatives have a responsibility in improving the country’s healthcare sector. The bottom line is, not only the rich and powerful, but every tax-paying citizen should have equal access to healthcare facilities.