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Financial crisis and global health

HE Nimal S. de Silva, Minister of Healthcare and Nutrition, Sri Lanka

Remarks at the high-level consultation on the financial crisis and global health
Geneva, Switzerland
19 January 2009

Dr Margaret Chan, Director-General of WHO, your excellencies, distinguished members of the panel, distinguished delegates, ladies and gentlemen, at the outset I take the opportunity to thank the Director-General for convening this High-level Consultation on the Financial and Economic Crisis and Global Health with a view to building awareness on possible ways in which the economic crisis may impact the health sector and also to identify actions that could help to prevent and mitigate the negative impact of the economic downturn.

I am grateful for having been afforded this opportunity to chair this important meeting.

We are indeed living in an unprecedented period with three major crises confronting us - food, energy and most importantly, the financial crisis. The financial crisis in particular has affected across the globe, without exception, not only the economies of the developing countries but also those of developed countries.

We are here to discuss the ways in which we could prevent and minimize the adverse impact of this economic tsunami which could devastate the social sector, particularly the health of our people. Therefore it is very timely that we collectively explore the ways and means of ensuring that the health systems are protected to the greatest degree possible from the impact of this financial crisis.

Expenditure on health should be always seen as an investment for human development which will have reflex actions on economic gains. Therefore it is essential that we look at health expenditure as a priority, over and above the other types of expenditure in our national budgets.

We must also be mindful that in many countries private expenditure constitutes a significant part of all health expenditure. With loss of avenues of income as a result of this financial crisis, many people in our countries will lose their capacity to afford these private health expenditures. This will further burden the government sector and will make it absolutely necessary to safeguard the investments in health.

We have a global commitment to achieve the Millennium Development Goals and it is unfortunate that the crisis has come at a time when our countries are striving hard to reach these goals in good time. This makes it almost imperative that the funding of the health sector is not compromised at any cost.

In most of the WHO regions, including South-East Asia Region, we need to ensure that nutrition and immunization are not in any way affected, for these could have considerable long-term consequences for all our populations. Communicable diseases in general, particularly poliomyelitis, avian influenza, HIV disease and the like are also equally important, as many of these are potentially critical and could lead to pandemics and they do not recognize any geographical boundaries.

My own country, Sri Lanka, has been seriously affected by the present global financial crisis. Our main export commodities, tea, rubber, coconut and cinnamon, now fetch very low prices in the world market but also are less in demand. The demand for finished goods such as garments is declining and that will have serious repercussions in this sector. Despite these economic setbacks and the high defence expenditure on the fight against a terrorist movement, my Government has not compromised its investments in health in any way. We deliver free health care to the whole nation, with no user fees at all. In fact, in 2009 the total budgetary allocation for the health sector increased to 87 billion rupees (the equivalent of US$ 800 million) from 67 billion rupees (US$ 600 million) in 2008, a real increase of more than 25%, and this despite the problems that I mentioned, demonstrating the commitment of the Government of Sri Lanka to protect the social sector.

As the Chair of the Executive Board, it is my duty to emphasize that, as WHO is the global leader for health, we must zealously guard and protect its capacity for meeting its responsibilities. I am sure all of us are deeply conscious of this and the Member States and our partners that provide considerable funds to the WHO will not allow WHO’s capacity to be compromised in the midst of this crisis.

United Nations agencies, private-public partnerships and nongovernmental organizations have strengthened the health systems in many developing countries. It is our fervent wish that their capacities to continue their humanitarian missions will not be affected.

Leading global financial agencies, such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the Asian Development Bank, and the international community also have a responsibility to find innovative ways and means to bridge the gaps that will be created by this financial crisis.

We have a very distinguished panel from the key areas relevant to the financial crisis and I am sure will hear extremely rich contributions to stimulate this discussion. I am sure we will have a very interactive and fruitful discussion.

Now I have great pleasure in inviting the Director-General, who mooted this idea, to make her opening comments.