Exploring Global Health Inequalities and the Right to Health

The globalization of medicine and human rights has resulted in disparities in healthcare access and quality across different countries. While the Hippocratic oath’s most well-known tenet is “first, do no harm,” healthcare providers are facing increasing challenges in upholding this principle due to medical policies that hinder their ability to provide optimal care to patients. Violations of the right to health have a direct impact on human rights, calling into question the foundation of these rights.

The right to health is one of the fundamental pillars of the international human rights system. It was originally referred to in Article 25 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 12 of the 1966 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights recognized this right, which has been referred to by multiple international and regional human rights treaties.

The right to health encompasses various subfields within healthcare, such as health services, goods, and facilities. The intersection of human rights and the right to health reveals the stark reality of inadequate healthcare, which includes the right to food and water. Addressing these issues is crucial to ensure that all individuals can enjoy the basic human right to health, regardless of their geographical location or socioeconomic status.

As part of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the United Nations (UN) encourages member states to promote “good health and wellbeing”. Target 3.8.1 of the SDGs measures these states’ efforts to provide their citizens with universal health coverage, which includes “financial risk protection, access to quality essential healthcare services and access to safe, effective, quality and affordable essential medicines and vaccines for all.” This indicator, created by the World Health Organization (WHO),  is “an index on a unitless scale of 0 to 100 computed as a mean of 14 tracer indicators of health service coverage.” The WHO’s technical guidance notes that “tracer indicators are based on four components that include (1) reproductive, maternal, newborn, and child health, (2) infectious diseases, (3) non-communicable diseases, and (4) service capacity and access. Data is sourced through household surveys, administrative data, and special facility surveys.” The most recent available data is updated to 2019. 

The maps illustrate the improvements in healthcare accessibility since 2000, which can be attributed to the prioritization of investments in public health systems encouraged by the SDGs. As a result, various African countries, including Burkina Faso, Sierra Leone, Tanzania, and Uganda, have more than doubled their essential health services coverage from 2000 to 2019, with similar progress observed in parts of Asia and Latin America.

Despite the significant progress made, several challenges persist. The WHO highlights the lack of capacity in low-income countries’ public health systems to provide reproductive, maternal, and child health services. Additionally, access to healthcare remains a crucial issue for individuals facing financial difficulties or residing far from healthcare facilities, especially those in conflict zones.

While some countries have made impressive strides in healthcare accessibility and coverage, there are still significant gaps that require attention. The importance of the right to health cannot be overstated, as it allows individuals to lead a healthy and fulfilling life, participate fully in society, and upholds the principles of social justice and human dignity. Therefore, it is crucial to continue working towards improving healthcare accessibility and coverage to ensure that everyone has access to the healthcare services they need.

About the authors

Melina Christodoulou is a junior majoring in Political Science with a minor in Media and Communications at Drew University.

Carlie Chisolm is a senior at Drew University, where she is majoring in International Relations with minors in Middle East Studies, Psychology, and Law, Justice and Society.

Kareena Salvi is a senior majoring in Political Science with minors in Dance, Spanish and Law, Justice and Society at Drew University.

Editor’s note: This entry was written for Drew University's PSCI 333 International Human Rights.