World Health Day: Belgium Ambassador, Veestraeten, Discusses ‘Our Planet, Our Health’

By Rudi Veestraeten

This year’s World Health Day links health to our environment. Extreme population increase, deforestation, climate change and the decline in biodiversity all have a devastating impact on our health. Covid, bird flu, HIV, SARS, zika, ebolaand the plague are recent examples.

Hazards include air pollution and chemical waste in land and water. Agriculture and industry play a key role in the increase of pollution all over the world.

The impact of corona was a wake-up call, not only for Uganda but for all countries. Entire nations were locked up, companies came to a grinding halt and individual isolation became the new norm. The cost in human lives and health was big.

Good health care is a human right (Universal Declaration on Human Rights, article 25). We all have a role to play as individuals, civil society, development partners and government, each in different capacities.

As donors, we have shown a very high commitment to the fight against corona in Uganda. The almost entirety of the vaccines available in Uganda have been brought, free of charge, by the donor community.

I’m proud to state that Belgium is probably the champion in this field, with a donation of almost 3 million doses (2,008,000 doses of Johnson & Johnson and 864,000 doses of Astra Zeneca), out of a total of about 37 million doses received. Belgium stands as an example for the whole of the European Union.

We also substantially support the health sector in Uganda, year after year. Broad programs complement the Ugandan domestic efforts to build a robust health system for all. Many non-governmental organisations and civil society also contribute to this effort.

Belgium has spent 212 billion Shilling over the last 13 years in the Ugandan health sector on medical services, health education and nutrition, basic health care, policy and management.

The corona pandemic is only one of the challenges in Uganda. Health care is particularly important for women and girls. The increase in teenage pregnancies, for example, is adding pressure related to maternal health. So much remains to be done. And we need the government, in its own capacity, to also step up efforts to provide much better health care.

To put things into perspective: Sub-Saharan Africa has 24 percent of the global disease burden, yet only three percent of the world’s health care workers (Doctor Mitchell Besser). The issue of poor health care is not an isolated Ugandan issue, but it certainly is also a Ugandan one.

The government is the primary duty bearer to ensure the right to health. I’m very much concerned that the budget reserved for health in the national budget remains largely insufficient. In this country with a fast-growing population, more resources need to be allocated to public services such as education and health. The government needs to draw a credible path to steadily increase its efforts.

I know that we sometimes hear remarks that we are teaching lessons, as foreign diplomats in a sovereign country. In my specific case, that is a compliment since I was trained as a teacher, back in the 1980’s. But as solid and robust partners of Uganda, we simply have a duty to state the obvious.

Uganda needs to step up its efforts in both the area of environmental protection and health. Investment in these areas equals investment in the important economic foundations of the country. It will bring huge returns in the future, whereas failure to do so may come at an unbearable cost.

Rudi Veestraeten is the Ambassador of Belgium representing the European Union.

 

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