Updated: February 27, 2021
2020 was a devastating year for global health. A previously unknown virus raced around the world, rapidly emerging as one of its top killers, laying bare the inadequacies of health systems. Today, health services in all regions are struggling to both tackle COVID-19, and provide people with vital care.
In another blow, the pandemic threatens to set back hard-won global health progress achieved over the past two decades – in fighting infectious diseases, for example, and improving maternal and child health.
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The World Health Organization says in 2021, countries around the world will need to continue battle COVID-19 (albeit with the knowledge that effective tools are evolving).
They will need to move swiftly to repair and reinforce their health systems so they can deliver these tools, and to address the key societal and environmental issues that result in some sections of the population suffering so much more than others.
“WHO and its partners will be at their side. We will work to help countries strengthen preparedness for pandemics and other emergencies. We will remind them of the importance of bringing countries together and of involving the whole government, not just the health sector. And we will support them in building strong health systems and healthy populations,” the world body says.
Below are the 10 health issues to track in 2021 as highlighted by the World Health Organization
1- Build global solidarity for worldwide health security
WHO will work with countries to improve their own preparedness for pandemics and health emergencies. But for this to be effective, we will ensure that countries work together. Above all, this pandemic has shown us over and again, that no one is safe until everyone is safe.
We will also help tackle health emergencies in humanitarian settings that have been intensified by COVID-19. We will target support to better protect the most vulnerable communities against health emergency risks, including in urban settings, small island countries, conflict settings.
We will leverage existing partnerships and create new ones to build a global health emergencies workforce to expand, train and standardize high-quality public health and medical assistance. We also plan to establish a Bio Bank – a globally agreed system for sharing pathogen materials and clinical samples to facilitate the rapid development of safe and effective vaccines and medicines. And we will sustain our focus on getting accurate information to people, building on our work with key partners to protect populations from infodemics.
2- Speed up access to COVID-19 tests, medicines and vaccines
A top priority in 2021 will be to continue our work across the four pillars of the ACT-Accelerator, to achieve equitable access to safe and effective vaccines, tests, and treatments and to ensure that health systems are strong enough to deliver them. Getting effective tools to everyone who needs them will be key to ending this first, acute phase of the pandemic, and to solve the health and economic crises it has caused.
At the end of 2020 there are a number of promising tools in the pipeline, thanks to an unprecedented speed of innovation. One immediate challenge is to source the remaining crucial funds needed to get these tools everywhere they are needed.
Targets for the ACT-Accelerator in 2021 include: distributing 2 billion vaccines; 245 million treatments; establishing testing for 500 million people in low- and middle-income countries; and strengthening the health systems needed to support them.
3- Advance health for all
One of the clearest lessons the pandemic has taught us is the consequences of neglecting our health systems. In 2021 WHO will work across all three levels of the Organization and with partners worldwide to help countries strengthen systems so that they can respond to COVID-19 and deliver all the essential health services required to keep people of all ages healthy – close to home and without falling into poverty.
Two important initiatives will underpin this work: the implementation and roll-out of WHO’s new primary health care programme in countries and the UHC compendium – a tool to help countries identify the essential health services they need — for example to ensure that women can give birth safely, that children can get immunized, and that people can be tested and treated for diseases.
To further enhance this work, we will lead a global campaign to strengthen the global health workforce in 2021, the Year of the Health and Care Worker.
4- Tackling health inequities
The COVID-19 pandemic has drawn attention to the deep disparities that persist between and within countries, some of which are being exacerbated and risk widening even further.
In 2021 we will draw on the latest WHO data and build on international commitments (and existing work) to advance universal health coverage and address the broader determinants of health. We will work with countries to monitor and address health inequities related to critical issues such as income, gender, ethnicity, living in remote rural areas or disadvantaged urban areas, education, occupation/employment conditions, and disability.
We will focus on steps the health sector can take to ensure equitable access to quality health services across the continuum of care, as well as engage with other sectors to address social and environmental determinants of health.
As part of our year-long campaign, on World Health Day, 7 April 2021, WHO will call for global action to address health inequities.
5- Provide global leadership on science and data
WHO will monitor and evaluate the latest scientific developments around COVID-19 and beyond, identifying opportunities to harness those advances to improve global health. We will uphold and strengthen the excellence, relevance and efficacy of our own core technical functions, to provide the world with the best evidence-based recommendations for public health on issues ranging from Alzheimers to Zika.
And through efforts like our revamped SCORE Technical Package, we will support countries in strengthening the capacity of their health data and information systems to report on progress towards the health-related Sustainable Development Goals.
6- Revitalize efforts to tackle communicable diseases
In recent decades, WHO and partners have worked resolutely to end the scourge of polio, HIV, tuberculosis and malaria, and to avert epidemics of diseases like measles and yellow fever. COVID-19 set back much of this work in 2020. So in 2021 we will help countries get vaccines for polio and other diseases to the people who missed out during the pandemic. As part of this push, we will work to improve access to the HPV vaccine as part of the new global effort to end cervical cancer we launched in 2020.
We will work with partners to implement the new 10-year Roadmap for Neglected Tropical Diseases (NTDs), with its global targets and milestones to prevent, control, eliminate and eradicate 20 NTDs. And we will intensify efforts to end AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria and to eliminate viral hepatitis by 2030.
7- Combat drug resistance
Global efforts to end infectious diseases will only succeed if we have effective medicines to treat them. So it will be vital to build on the work we do with our One Health partners — the Food and Agricultural Organization and World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) — and with stakeholders across all sectors to preserve antimicrobials. The new Global Leadership Group for Antimicrobial Resistance, which includes industry chiefs as well as political leaders, will meet for the first time in January to discuss ways to accelerate momentum on this critical issue. At the same time, WHO will further improve global monitoring and continue our support to national action plans, making sure that antimicrobial resistance is factored into health system strengthening and health emergencies preparedness plans.
8- Prevent and treat NCDs and mental health conditions
WHO’s latest Global Health Estimates revealed that noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) were responsible for 7 of the top 10 causes of death in 2019. In 2020 we saw how particularly vulnerable people with NCDs are to COVID-19, and how vital it is to ensure that that screening and treatment programmes for diseases such as cancer, diabetes and heart disease are accessible to all who need them when they need them. This will be a major focus in 2021, along with a new Global Diabetes Compact, and a campaign to help 100 million people quit tobacco.
We also saw the devastating impact of the pandemic and the resulting lockdowns, economic security, and fear and uncertainty on people’s mental health the world over. In 2021 we will support efforts to expand services for community-based mental health care, and to people living in conflict- or disaster-affected areas.
9- Build back better
COVID-19 has been a pivotal moment in many ways, and offers a unique opportunity to build back a better, greener, healthier world. Our Manifesto for a Healthy Recovery from COVID-19, with its goals of addressing climate change and health, reducing air pollution and improving air quality, can play a major role in making this happen.
A conference in June 2021 will focus on supporting health in Small Island Developing States. Meanwhile, we will take forward recommendations from the 2020 WHO/UNICEF/Lancet Commission to assure a healthier planet for our children, and continue our work to improve nutrition and food systems worldwide — including through the global strategy on food safety and the United Nations Secretary-General’s Food Systems Summit in September.
10- Act in solidarity
One of the key principles WHO has emphasized throughout the fight against COVID-19 is the need to demonstrate greater solidarity – between nations, institutions, communities and individuals, closing the cracks in our defences on which the virus thrives.
In 2021 we will prioritize this – building national capacity through our work with Member States but also with new initiatives, for example working with youth groups, strengthening and expanding partnerships with civil society and the private sector, and partnering with the new WHO Foundation. Our institutional capacity will develop apace, including through new scientific collaborations and the WHO Academy.