Even before the devastating Ebola epidemic in West Africa, development agencies were highlighting that health indicators in this region were lagging the rest of the continent. In a 2013 report UNICEF noted:
“West and Central Africa in particular requires a special focus for child survival, as it is lagging behind all other regions, including Eastern and Southern Africa, and has seen virtually no reduction in its annual number of child deaths since 1990.”
But as Ebola has overwhelmed some countries and threatened many others, questions are being asked about the role of international agencies in undermining health systems in West Africa. Specifically, fingers have been pointed at the 1980s structural adjustment policies of the World Bank and IMF for forcing poor African countries to cut public spending on health. These policies also shifted the financing burden of health services onto poor populations by charging them user fees. Interestingly at the time one of the leading critics of this policy was none other than the current President of the World Bank.
Other health policies promoted at the same time were also damaging to poor people’s access to health care. The Bamako Initiative (BI) launched in 1987, was prompted by UNICEF and WHO as community management of “revolving drug funds”. However, BI institutionalized user fees for essential medicines in some of the poorest countries in the world. Not surprisingly, with most households unable to pay these fees, utilization of health services in the countries concerned slumped, with the poor most likely not to seek care. In West Africa where the BI became established, typical utilization of curative services at the start of the millennium was around one visit per person every three years!
Thankfully a huge volume of research evidence over the last 20 years has conclusively proved the folly of this approach. User fees have been shown to be ineffective in raising health revenues, inefficient in incurring high administration costs and inequitable in excluding the poor. They have also resulted in outrageous human rights abuses where poor people (often women and babies) have been detained in hospitals because they can’t pay their bills. Sadly this practice continues to this day.
As a result of these findings many prominent aid agencies have radically changed their health financing policies, including the World Bank whose President has referred to user fees as “unnecessary and unjust”. Even one of the architects of the World Bank’s previous pro-user fees policy has publicly stated his change of position on user fees although he did not admit that it was a mistake then.
However, not all agencies have been so clear in making a break with the past. As recently as 2008 in its State of the World’s Children Report, UNICEF was still championing the Bamako Initiative and openly criticizing NGOs that were advocating the removal of user fees Indeed one of the countries singled out for praise in implementing the BI was Guinea, from where the current Ebola epidemic has spread
It is true that the international agencies involved in promoting the BI have gradually shifted their positions on health financing and are now rallying behind the goal of universal health coverage. However, the agencies that promoted the BI need to acknowledge their past mistakes rather than assuming that the Bamako Initiative never happened.
This is problematic because whereas other development agencies are aware of the changing consensus on health financing, this may not be the case in many countries. Some governments are still laboring under the illusion that the BI is working and thus user fees policies are still implemented. Thankfully, some countries in the region are now replacing user fees with public financing, for at least some of the population, most notably in Liberia, Ghana, Senegal, Niger and Sierra Leone. The latter’s free health services initiative for pregnant women and children under 5 has been a particularly good example of the impact of removing user fees.
However in West and Central Africa, out-of-pocket payments including user fees remain by far the biggest health financing mechanism. With the Ebola virus not beaten yet in the region, the lack of effective healthcare coverage doesn’t only threaten the health of the population in the region but also poses a threat to global health too.
Therefore, as the international community begins to support countries in West Africa to develop more resilient health systems, there is one immediate action they should take as a top priority. This action would cost practically nothing but its impact could be profound in helping put countries on a path towards equitable universal health coverage. After a twenty-eight year failed experiment, it’s time that agencies including UNICEF and WHO formally and publicly end the Bamako Initiative.
 UNICEF 2013 Committing to Child Survival, a Promise Renewed, Progress Report 2013 Available at: http://www.unicef.org/publications/files/APR_Progress_Report_2013_9_Sept_2013.pdf
 IDS Practice Paper in Brief 2015 Ebola and Lessons for Development Available at: http://opendocs.ids.ac.uk/opendocs/bitstream/handle/123456789/5849/ID557%20Online.pdf
 Kim JY et al editors 2000 Dying for Growth Global Inequality and the Health of the Poor. Common Courage Pres
 UNICEF 2009 Maternal and Child Health the Social Protection Dividend: West and Central Africa
 Yates R 2009 Universal Health Care and the Removal of User Fees The Lancet 373: 2078–81 Available at http://www.thelancet.com/pdfs/journals/lancet/PIIS0140-6736(09)60258-0.pdf
 Kippenberg J Burundi A High Price to Pay Detention of Poor Patients in Hospitals 2006 Human Rights Watch Volume 18 No 8(A) New York, USA
 See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RNfzXh4I-Pw
 Kim JK Poverty Health and the Human Future [Speech] World Health Assembly, Geneva, Switzerland 21 May 2013 Available from: http://www.worldbank.org/en/news/speech/2013/05/21/world-bank-group-president-jim-yong-kim-speech-at-world-health-assembly
 Boseley S (2012) From user fees to universal healthcare – a 30-year journey. The Guardian
 UNICEF 2008 State of the World’s Children: Child Survival available at: http://www.unicef.org/sowc08/docs/sowc08.pdf
During 2014, we both had a chance to work on an exciting project of analysing inequality trends in Russia as part of Oxfam’s programme on Empowering Civil Societies in an Unequal Multipolar World (ECSM BRICSAM). Through the project, we’ve got to work on the issues of both economic inequality and inequality in access to healthcare in Russia, which are central to Oxfam’s inequality campaign. This blog reflects some of our findings and learning from the project.
According to the 2013 representative population survey, Russians think that the two forms of inequality most strongly affecting the well-being of the country’s population are:
• Income inequality (72 per cent of respondents)
• Inequality in access to healthcare (47 per cent)
The income inequality percentage may not surprise outside observers, as Russia has witnessed one of the most radical increases in economic inequality in the last two decades following the collapse of the Soviet Union, and is now on par with other high inequality G20 peers like Turkey and Mexico. Inequality in access to healthcare may come as a bit more of a surprise, taking into account that Russia formally has universal health coverage and the right to free healthcare is enshrined in its constitution. Moreover, BRICS are now being looked at as important players in the global health arena.
So, what does inequality in access to healthcare actually look like in Russia? What are the main causes of inequality in access to healthcare? And how does economic inequality, ravaging the country is related to the inequality in access to healthcare?
Inequality in access to healthcare Russia has three key dimensions:
Key drivers of inequality in access to healthcare:
Clearly the lack of publicly funded health service makes people’ income the decisive factor in a person’s chances of getting healthcare in Russia. Private expenditure on healthcare of the richest 10 per cent of the Russian population is now eleven times greater than that of the poorest 10 per cent. The combination of lack of investment in health service and rising economic inequality will continue to exacerbate inequality in access to healthcare, which, in turn, will lead to further perpetuation of income inequality at the country enters into this vicious circle.
This is the first of two posts on access to health service in BRICS countries
Jim O’Neill of Goldman Sachs turned the spotlight on the four emerging economies when he dubbed them the“BRIC” countries in 2001. The acronym was extended later — to BRICS — to include South Africa. Although such a grouping may be useful from economic point of view, it sounds awkward and artificial when it comes to global health policy.
While health economists see strong potential roles for the BRICS in the development of universal health coverage, these countries vary greatly in terms of their patterns of disease, healthcare systems, financial interest in the pharmaceutical trade, and engagement in the global arena for healthcare. Although many might be looking to the BRICS for leadership, it is still not clear if these countries have sufficient shared interests or the coordinating mechanisms and processes needed to collectively and cohesively influence or promote global health policy.
The BRICS are also nowhere near economic parity. Russia and Brazil are far ahead in per capita income, outdistancing both India and China by significant margins – nearly $14,000 compared with China’s $6,629 and India’s $1,592; data and figures which were released in 2013 by the IMF. Notwithstanding, the countries in question have for the most part fallen short of successfully addressing inequalities in healthcare. Inequality in the BRICS has come under scrutiny of late, particularly due to their falling behind on Millennium Development Goals.
Despite diversity, the BRICS countries face a number of similar public health challenges, including inequitable access to healthcare and affordable medicines, soaring health costs, rising non communicable and infectious diseases such as AIDS and tuberculosis.
These factors were illustrated by recent findings of a study conducted by Oleg Kucheryavenko, which noted that limited access to healthcare for a significant number of people in Russia is an issue of concern to all social groups, non-governmental organizations and political parties. Inequality has not been given much attention by policy makers.
The Russian healthcare system is characterized by significant differences in demand from the various socioeconomic classes. Social groups with a higher incomes request healthcare more frequently than those with lower incomes. This inequality is reflected by a widespread health service based on cash payments: high-income persons pay 2.5 times more for a visit to a healthcare institution than those with a low income. However, poor people spend 1.5 times more of their household budget on medical care than well-off people.
Since 1990, the material and human resources of the health sector have been reduced. Beds have decreased by 12%, the number of doctors has dropped by 46%, and nursing staff by 10%. Yet, Russia is still among the top countries of the world in terms of the number of doctors and hospital beds per 1000 persons.
While global growth in expenditures for health care is rising, Russian spending continues to decline, which hinders government’ ability to subsidize the most in need. Russian state healthcare expenditures are several-fold lower than the ones in the countries of the European Union; in Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Poland – 6% of GDP, in Germany – 11%.
Russian spending on the health and social sector has slipped as EU and US economic sanctions have taken hold. Cutting public expenditures meant less spending for social services. Moreover, the Russian parliament approved a fragile budget that includes a reduction in healthcare spending by 25% in 2015. These decisions have put the country’s relative position of strength among the BRICS in serious jeopardy.
Between 1995 and 2011, private spending by Russians on health surpassed state spending by 2.1 times. Over half of this private spending is for retail purchases of medicines and healthcare products. Expenditures for paid health care services and unofficial payments amount in total to 87.9% of personal expenditures.
Given the current trends in healthcare financing and the structure of informal payments for health care services, expenditures for prescription drugs are likely to increase. Our study, estimated that the private expenditures will rise from 331.9 billion RUB in 2013 to 1305.5 billion RUB in 2020, considerably outperforming state expenditures on health.
Increasing funding alone will not solve all the problems in the health care system. Current spending is both insufficient and ineffective. Without effective policy changes, additional funding is likely to have a negligible effect. A key change is to adopt a social policy based on recognizing health as a human right and not a commercial product. Adopting universal health coverage as a basis for health policy means that quality health services are publicly financed and publicly delivered to all who need it.
It is evident that the prospects for health care in Russia are directly interwoven with the nation’s future socioeconomic development. What happens in the future depends on the extent to which the government recognizes the inequality that is skyrocketing in society.
A new report published by Oxfam last week calls on governments to reduce inequality by changing the rules and systems that have led to extreme inequality, and by prioritising policies that redistribute money and power. ‘Even It Up: Time to End Extreme Inequality’ firmly presents universal public services – including health and education – as part of the solution to out-of-control inequality.
Health is both a human right and a building block to tackling poverty and reducing inequality. The provision of good quality health care for all – free at the point of use – can mitigate the impact of skewed income and wealth distribution, by closing the gap in life chances between the rich and the rest. Moreover, universal free health care (UHC) with other public services, especially education, puts ‘virtual income’ into the hands of ordinary people, further helping to level the playing field. Between 2000 and 2007, the ‘virtual income’ provided by public services reduced income inequality by an average of 20 percent across OECD countries for example.
In addition, quality health care and education can transform societies, by giving people the tools and ability to challenge unfair rules that perpetuate economic inequality. For example, healthy and well-nourished children are more likely to spend more years at school and to have better cognitive skills that help learning.
But the extent to which public services are able to achieve their inequality-busting potential is heavily dependent on how these systems are designed, financed and delivered. Low levels of public spending and a continued reliance on out-of-pocket payments to fund health services are disproportionately harming poor and marginalised women and men. User fees and other forms of out of pocket payments can push struggling families further into poverty and prevent people from getting the treatment they need.
“I went for a cataract operation. They told me it costs 7,000 Egyptian pounds. All I had in my pocket was seven so I decided to go blind” – a 60-year old woman in a remote village in Egypt”
When health care is not free, poor people are excluded from service or are forced to sell assets and borrow money; leading to debt and thus further perpetuating existing economic hardships. This happens even in rich countries; in the USA, medical debt contributed to 62 percent of personal bankruptcies in 2007.
All too often the amount of money available for governments to spend on public services is limited. Taxation is critical to ensure sufficient public funds can be invested in delivering free healthcare for all. However, the exploitation of tax loopholes, unfair tax rules and tax dodging results in governments’ loss of millions of dollars each year. For example, in 2008/09 the Rwandan government authorized tax exemptions that could have been used to double the health and education spending.
Decent investments in public health services that are free at point of delivery will boost the rights and opportunities of poor people. The growing momentum for UHC – under which all people should get the healthcare they need without suffering financial hardship – has the potential to vastly improve access to healthcare, and drive down inequality.
A lot has been written about the Ebola crisis in West Africa in the last few weeks. Many excellent articles have highlighted the plight of those suffering with Ebola (Newsweek), and the people on the frontline trying to tackle the virus (Time) and the consequences on the affected countries as a whole (How we made it in Africa). However, the real tragedy is how an inherently preventable virus was able to spread like wildfire throughout West Africa and why public health facilities failed on such an enormous scale.
I first heard about Ebola in March 2013, four months after the first patient died of the virus in a small village in south-eastern Guinea, the first ever in West Africa.
With the death toll rising across the border in Guinea, discussions in Monrovia turned to the threat of it reaching the capital: “no previous outbreak has killed more than 300 people”, “it is easy to avoid just don’t go near sick people and you are safe”, and “the disease kills people so quickly it will die out before it reaches Monrovia”. The general message was “it is scary, but we can control it with basic public health.”
Despite these reassurances, everyday you check the news: how many infected? How many died? How many health clinics were beginning to shut due to healthcare workers leaving their posts? Despite the growing chaos, we in Monrovia continued to rationalize the situation. We knew things were getting worse but we didn’t act in time.
So when did it get “out of control”? Was it when MSF declared it to be so in June? Was it when the virus hit Conakry, Freetown and Monrovia, making control of the disease in crowded urban environment increasingly hard? Perhaps it was when the Liberian-American Ministry of Finance consultant died after flying to Lagos, inadvertently putting a planeload of passengers and Africa’s most populous country at risk.
Whenever it was, there is no question that we are now in the middle of an unprecedented crisis. Every day, I dread reading the news. The front page of every newspaper is full of articles discussing the bleak picture of Liberia’s largest slum quarantined like something out of a science fiction novel. I read about the almost complete collapse of the government’s health care facilities and the justifiable fear of the healthcare workers too scared to go to work. We hear terrifying stories of suspected cases being turned away from treatment centres because there is no space to treat them, and bodies left on the street for days without someone coming to pick them up. Most of all, I fear for the secondary threats should countries follow through on plans to impose economic embargoes on the country.
Already five airlines have stopped flying to Liberia through fear of the disease. Earlier reports that West African ports have refused entry to vessels which have docked in Liberia appear false, but raise an alarming prospect of the country cut off from essential imports. This is dangerous given that Liberia is completely dependent on imports with an import bill equal to 60 percent of GDP including two of the most important commodities, fuel and rice. Even without an economic blockade importers are worried.
Early reports suggest for the last four weeks the number of import certificates are down 30 percent from the previous year. Not to mention, the travel restrictions inside the country making movement of agricultural goods from farm to market next to impossible. These developments will raise the price of essential goods necessary for the Liberian economy to function and will harm the very poorest. They also raise the possibility of riots on the street and a return to the days of anarchy last seen during Liberia’s bloody civil war.
So how did this happen? The underlying causes of this outbreak are many and difficult and will be discussed for years to come. Fundamentally, they focus on the fragility of West African states and the failure of emergency planning to tackle the crisis when it was at a manageable level.
What can we do about it? Despite the fear, there are many brave West Africans and foreigners continuing to fight this disease. The Ministry of Health is working to open new treatment centres, MSF continues to fight the battle on the front line and are managing patient care alongside national governments. The World Bank has promised USD200million to fight the disease in West Africa. The African Development Bank has promised USD210million to build West African public health facilities. The World Food Program has begun the process of bringing in food to tackle the secondary crisis. NGOs on the ground, including Oxfam, have begun gearing up awareness campaigns to get the message out that Ebola is preventable. These things are vital to the immediate fight and the world needs to react, and react fast.
Once the immediate crisis is brought under control, we must consider measures to strengthen the state institutions especially the health service in order to effectively deal with health threats in the region.