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States must act now on their duty to ensure the best attainable standard of physical and mental health for all

Issue Paper
Strasbourg 19/02/2021
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States must act now on their duty to ensure the best attainable standard of physical and mental health for all

"For one year now, countries around the world have been battling with the catastrophic consequences of COVID-19. As governments are making mass vaccination their top priority, they should act now to rebuild inclusive health care systems," said today Dunja Mijatović, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, while publishing a paper containing recommendations on how to protect the right to health effectively.

All Council of Europe member states are bound by international obligations to secure their populations’ access to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health. Outlining the main standards and principles related to the right to health, the paper spotlights the key partners that can help states tackle the health gaps exposed and magnified by COVID-19. It also explores the various components required to deliver inclusive and resilient health care systems, including a skilled health work force, adequate financing, and, crucially, leadership and governance. Finally, the paper underlines the need for a broader social rights perspective. Urgent attention must be paid to the social determinants of health (social protection, adequate living environment, education and employment conditions), as the pandemic has demonstrated how deeply embedded social inequalities result in greater health risks for affected groups.

"The paper intends to be a tool to help governments address the urgency of building more inclusive and resilient health care systems," said the Commissioner. "Despite Council of Europe member states being home to some of the world’s best performing health and social care systems, health inequalities have been growing, and cause significant social, human and economic costs to individuals and societies."

Even before the pandemic struck, disparities in accessing health care based on age, gender, disability, minority or socio-economic background were common. "The COVID-19 pandemic has compounded this situation, tragically exposing the weaknesses of health care systems strained by years of austerity, economic difficulties and neglect," said the Commissioner. "Member states should redouble their efforts to eliminate health inequalities and rebuild a society where public health infrastructures are well equipped, patients’ dignity and rights are central and where health professionals are treated in accordance with the crucial services they provide to individuals and society."

To help states achieve this goal, the Commissioner sets out twelve recommendations, including in relation to universal health coverage, more equality and dignity for patients, the promotion of transparency and accountability in relevant decision-making, better health communication policies, and measures to ensure equitable global distribution of medical products and vaccines. COVID-19 has shown us that the right to health cannot be protected at individual or national level only. Effective systems and global solidarity are needed to ensure that no one is left behind.

"Health is a human right, not a commodity," concluded the Commissioner. "States must act now on their duty to ensure the best attainable standard of physical and mental health for all."