Global Health Must Remain a Critical Priority for Next U.N. Secretary-General

Global Health Must Remain a Critical Priority for Next U.N. Secretary-General
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The 71st session of the United Nations General Assembly, opening next week, promises to be among the most difficult in recent memory. As the world faces rising challenges and an increasingly contentious geo-political environment, the critical question of leadership is also at stake – including who will succeed U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who has been in this post since 2006.

Leadership is all about priorities. The issues facing the globe now are momentous – the world’s population is at an all-time high, natural resources are stretched increasingly thin, 20 percent of the world’s population, approximately 1.2 billion people, still lives on less than $1 a day, the effects of climate change are accelerating and too many people die needlessly from disease, injury and antimicrobial resistance, much of them preventable. How can the next U.N. Secretary-General make the greatest impact on human lives given these increasingly urgent and complex issues? 

True leadership will redouble commitment to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development – called the Global Goals or SDGs – crafted in a process that brought world leaders together to create a shared agenda that have been called colloquially “the world’s to-do list.” The Security Council must promote a candidate who will actively keep the focus on the SDGs – and within them, the health goals, which will have the most beneficial impact for billions of people. The next Secretary-General must make improving the globe’s health, and making longer lives possible, a critical priority. 

Two health goals outlined in the 2030 Agenda have particular promise and urgency, saving and improving countless lives if the U.N. prompts nations to prioritize action: non-communicable disease (NCD) prevention and strengthening the World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC).

First, we need steadfast commitment to reducing the prevalence of NCDs such as cancer, heart, lung disease, and diabetes, the diseases of the 21st century now killing more people than TB, HIV, and other infectious diseases, combined. Each year, NCDs claim the lives of more than 36 million people around the world – representing 63 percent of all global deaths. And their cost will be more than $47 trillion  over the next two decades unless we pursue the steps proven to prevent them. According to the World Health Organization, this loss represents a staggering 75 percent of global GDP in 2010, a statistic that will only grow unless we are resolute in our dedication to the Global Goals.  

Despite the clear need for action, most countries are not on track and need to be pushed to get there. With a strong emphasis on NCD prevention, the next U.N. Secretary-General could accelerate the achievement of SDGs. To be concrete about how this public health goal can affect families, communities, and entire nations, consider that when people are unable to work and collect wages due to illness from an NCD, their take home pay is diminished, keeping them in poverty. Medical treatments, such as insulin for diabetes or chemotherapy for cancer, are expensive, especially for people in low- and middle-income countries who often have no access to health insurance or government-funded public health coverage. This also creates an added strain on employers, who experience loss in productivity that at an aggregated level can leave a strong impact on a local economy and further destabilize countries already on the brink.

Far too often, high-income nations like the United States are called upon to provide assistance in times of economic trouble or deep poverty, which is why reducing NCDs is not only right thing to do, but in all countries’ economic best interests. Achieving the Global Goal of preventing NCDs would help achieve the Global Goal of reducing poverty; in fact the two are inextricably linked. This compels all of us to ensure NCDs remain high on the U.N.’s agenda.

The other health-related issue that must be highly prioritized by the new U.N. chief is to increase tobacco taxation around the world to the levels outlined in the FCTC. This would not only make tobacco use more price prohibitive, it would also boost revenues that can be used to fund all SDGs, including health-related targets. Greater revenue generated by tobacco taxation would give low- and middle-income countries resources to improve their health systems and their economies. Tobacco taxation is the least implemented arm of the FCTC’s strong policy framework, yet boosting it worldwide would accelerate all countries’ capacity to meet the Global Goals. U.N. member countries, including the United States, should insist that Ban Ki-moon’s record on strong prioritization of the Global Goals be taken up by the new U.N. Secretary-General, and pressed as an even greater priority in the future.

With such powerful, and proven, measures to improve lives at our disposal, and the consensual agreement of U.N. Member Nations on the Global Goals, the next U.N. Secretary-General must steer the world to success by forging a path that will bring us closer to achieving all SDGs. The challenges facing the world sometimes seem staggering, but true leadership can significantly contribute to the health and well-being the world requires to ensure a strong future.


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