CHIANG MAI, 14 MAY 2020: “Securing the right to health implies more than just access to health services but constitutes the right to the determinants of health along with the absence of discrimination. Successfully tiding over the COVID-19 crisis would entail collaboration not just between affected people or communities and the government, but also civil society and faith-based organisations as well as intergovernmental agencies,” stated an expert group comprised of panellists at a virtual conference facilitated by the Christian Conference of Asia (CCA) on ‘Right to Health amidst the COVID-19 Crisis’.
The conference is part of a series of virtual conferences (webinars) in the context of COVID-19 that CCA has been hosting, arising out of its ongoing commitment towards affirming the dignity and well-being of all people.
The third in this series of webinars was held on 14 May 2020. Along with registered participants, over 5,000 viewers engaged in the proceedings via live-streaming on the CCA’s social media platforms.
The expert group of panellists represented the United Nations (UN), Christian Medical Associations in Asia, Christian Hospital Networks in Asia, and representatives of health and healing ministries of Asian churches.
Given that a vast number of lesser-developed countries in Asia lack basic health care facilities and have fewer health workers, the fragile health systems in these countries with their under-resourced hospitals are likely to be overburdened by the COVID-19 crisis, thus compromising access and the right to health for all. The right to health entails not just the presence of medical institutions, but more crucially, availability of medical goods, services, and health facilities that are of accurate and appropriate scientific and medical quality, available in sufficient quantity, can be accessed without discrimination, and are acceptable in terms of medical ethics.
Dr Mathews George Chunakara, the General Secretary of the CCA who moderated the virtual conference, introduced the theme and said in his opening remarks that the COVID-19 pandemic presented an overwhelming public health challenge where the health, freedom, and livelihood of millions of people were negatively affected. The right to health is a fundamental human right and constituted the core of living a life with dignity. “When we observe the situation that is emerging due to the COVID-19 crisis, there are innumerable instances and examples indicating the violation of the right to health and the right to life, and we find that the basic necessities of life as stipulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) are denied to millions,” he said.
Dr Mathews George Chunakara further highlighted the scale and severity of the crisis and spoke of the obligation of governments, civil society organisations (CSO), and faith-based organisations (FBO) to provide health care – under the ambit of the right to health as defined by the World Health Organisation (WHO) in 1946 and the UDHR in 1948.
Dr Salil Panakadan, Asia Pacific Regional Advisor of the United Nations AIDS division, shared the realistic approaches that could be adopted to address the challenges to the health and well-being of all people. He advised that governments must develop a long-term strategy with carefully tailored solutions and enable communities to be partners in national affairs, rather than enforcing coercive top-down lockdowns that often generate stigma and discrimination against those infected and those fighting the virus at the frontlines.
From the perspective of the intergovernmental organisation, Dr Panakadan proposed a multi-sectoral strategy that focused on three broad streams, namely, ‘health’, ‘humanitarian’, and ‘socio-economic’, as was done by the UN. He also suggested ways in which the UN and FBOs could collaborate and highlighted ‘country coordinating mechanisms’ (CCM) that FBOs could partner with in order to secure funding for providing livelihood support, insurance coverage, and other medical resources.
Dr Priya John, the General Secretary of the Christian Medical Association of India (CMAI), spoke of the resourcefulness and prompt work undertaken by health care institutions with a distinct Christian mission identity. Despite the constraints on their resources in the wake of the pandemic, mission hospitals, with their self-led initiatives, were crucial to the well-being of the communities around them. Health workers were actively working in communities, distributing medical help and food ration, and generating awareness on sanitation and hygiene. Tele-counselling was also set up to cater to the mental health and well-being of people.
Dr Priya John also spoke of the advocacy efforts of Indian health networks such as the Christian Coalition for Health (CCH) which contributed to ‘education, ethics, and policy formation’, while cooperating and coordinating fully with government departments. The CCH voiced out concerns for the plight of vulnerable populations who could not access national health insurance schemes and were more susceptible to slipping through the cracks.
Dr Daniel Budi Wobowo, of the Indonesian Christian Association of Health Services (PELKESI), pointed out that the sudden arrival and spread of the virus in the country exposed the lack of preparedness and foresight in anticipating the magnitude of the pandemic. He highlighted three indicators for governments to act on in their efforts at mitigating the COVID-19 crisis, namely ‘knowledge’ (community awareness and correct information), ‘tools’ (mass screening, medical resources, quarantine facilities, nutritious food) and ‘support’ (socioeconomic relief packages and stimulus). PELKESI, he said, was instrumental in securing funding and played a facilitating role by conducting thorough needs assessments.
Ms Stela Sacaliuc, Executive Officer, UNAIDS Asia and Pacific Regional Support Team (RST), shared lessons learnt from the earlier HIV/AIDS pandemic and emphasised that community engagement was the key in successfully overcoming the consequences of the COVID-19 crisis. At the heart of the government’s response should be mass testing, which was augmented by isolation, quarantine, and contact tracing. Accompaniment with communities and collaboration with CSOs and FBOs was necessary to ensure that no one was left behind while disseminating care and relief, she said.
Prof. Dr Chiao-Chicy Chen, from Taipei Mackay Memorial hospital of the Presbyterian Church in Taiwan (PCT), shared how the church-owned institutions in Taiwan have upheld the right to health amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. Ample support was provided to the frontline staff in terms of ensuring access to adequate personal protective equipment (PPE), reasonable shifts, and access to nutritious food, catering to their physical and psychological health. The special needs of persons with disabilities were also a key focus of the medical response of Christian health networks in Taiwan.
Dr Prawing Euanontat, Chairman of the Medical Mission of the Church of Christ in Thailand, said that the department was responsible for providing medical treatment that included physical, mental, social and spiritual support during the COVID-19 crisis. Churches and church-owned hospitals complemented the work of the government and focused specifically on reducing risk among vulnerable populations like the elderly and young children. Medical consultation was provided online and medicines were delivered to patients’ homes to adhere to the norms of social distancing and restrictions on large gatherings. He called for international solidarity and coordination to combat the spread of the virus.
Rev. Callum Tabada of the United Church of Christ in the Philippines (UCCP) highlighted the advocacy role of churches on policy and guideline matters of governments to ensure that the right to health was respected and protected during the current pandemic. Pastoral letters containing information about the virus and recommendations for hygiene and sanitation was sent out by the churches even before the government did so. Churches in the Philippines were instrumental in distributing material relief and funds to hospitals. They supplemented the work of hospitals by initiating campaigns for mass testing and raising awareness among communities. He also said that instances of mental health illnesses were being underreported in the crisis and that churches were providing online counselling for their people.
The webinar served as a platform to share best practices and inspire all attendees into action. While the global situation may be grim, the key to successfully mitigating the crisis and restoring the right to health of all people was accompanying communities and making them salient partners in decision-making. “It is easier to prevent than to treat,” said the panel, while unanimously stressing the importance of community-based recovery with localised solutions in cooperation with government measures that were mindful of the needs and situation of the people. This would be more effective than a one-size-fits-all approach.
Although resources were scarce, it was possible to implement the lessons from previous epidemics and develop strategic partnerships and cater to the holistic needs of the people – physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual. Thus, FBOs and CSOs were also key players in securing and protecting the right to health of all.
While concluding the discussions, Dr Mathews George Chunakara stated that understanding health as a human right creates a legal obligation on states to ensure access to timely, acceptable, and affordable health care of appropriate quality as well as providing for the underlying determinants of health. There is a wide range of criticism and concern surrounding government responses to the crisis, which have involved sweeping restrictions on the right to health of people in many contexts and excessive restrictions on freedom of movement, expression, and assembly. He suggested that in the context of a spreading epidemic, states, CSOs, and FBOs have obligations to ensure that preventive care, treatments, goods, services, and information are available and accessible to all persons.
The CCA has scheduled a series of webinars in the upcoming weeks which will focus on pertinent issues related to the COVID-19 crisis and its repercussions. The next webinar on ‘Upholding the Rights and Dignity of Children amidst the COVID-19 Crisis’ will be held on 19 May 2020 (Tuesday) from 12:00–14:00 Bangkok (Thailand) time. The registration link and other details will be shared soon.
Upcoming webinars are ‘The Impact of the COVID-19 Crisis on Women in Asia: Vital Needs and Post-Crisis Recovery’ (21 May 2020) and ‘Food Security: Will the world face more deaths due to hunger or COVID-19?’ (28 May 2020).
The Reports of CCA’s previous webinars: