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International Partnerships

UHC Partnership: Building stronger health systems for better pandemic preparedness and universal health coverage in South Africa

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit South Africa, one of the Government’s top priorities was to protect its 59 million inhabitants. In order to scale up the infection prevention and control efforts, it set out to develop a National Infection Prevention and Control Strategic Framework and a practical manual for its implementation in health facilities.

With financial support from the European Union, the Universal Health Coverage Partnership (UHC-P) supported the development of the South African Strategic Framework and its rollout to provinces.

© WHO/Elena Longarini

The strategic framework gives guidance to public and private health facilities and health workers on compliance with standards relating to infection control and prevention practices, such as hand hygiene, the use of personal protective equipment and cleaning and disinfection of medical equipment and environment. Its effective implementation is critical for delivering health services that are designed and managed to minimise the risks of avoidable infections for both patients and health workers. It continues to be crucial as South Africa experiences one of the highest number of COVID-19 cases in the continent.

The COVID-19 response requires scaling up urgent multisectoral actions, at the center of which should be robust containment measures while preparing for surge capacity. It is critical to ramp up testing, treat and isolate those who are infected while quickly tracing the contacts for appropriate measures.

Dr Owen Kaluwa, WHO Representative to South Africa

“Since 2010, and in line with the EU’s human rights approach to health, the Union has supported the Government’s efforts regarding Universal Health Coverage. In addition, since 2016, the EU has financed WHO to provide technical assistance on this important work-in-progress. We support WHO’s swiftly re-oriented efforts to stand by South Africa at this time of crisis by deploying doctors and much needed expertise to the most affected provinces of the country. As South Africa’s number one transformation partner, we remain committed, in this period of global pandemic, to South Africa’s efforts to roll out a universal National Health Insurance scheme,” Dr Riina Kionka, European Union Ambassador to South Africa, and speaking on behalf of #TeamEurope

Dr Zweli Lawrence Mkhize Minister of Health South Africa
Dr Zweli Lawrence Mkhize, South Africa’s Minister of Health, in discussion with the KwaZulu Natal provincial team and WHO staff - © WHO/South Africa

The global spread of COVID-19 has demonstrated the devastating social and economic consequences caused by epidemics and pandemics, and re-emphasises the importance of appropriately investing in strong systems that are able to prevent, detect and respond to health crises.

In the wake of the current pandemic, South Africa is one of the countries where the UHC Partnership has revamped its work to identify areas for improvement in health emergency preparedness beyond COVID-19, including the provision of technical cooperation on cross-border health security issues, developing risk assessments and mapping of vulnerabilities. A partnership which is also working to promote strengthened collaboration between human, animal and environmental health sectors to control endemic zoonotic, emerging and re-emerging diseases, namely through the International Health Regulations and the Performance of Veterinary Pathways.

Alexandra township Johannesburg
Alexandra township, Johannesburg - © Brand South Africa
© WHO/Blink Media - Gilliane Soupe

UHC Partnership activities include preparedness planning and training to strengthen detection, preparedness and response to infectious diseases, resource mapping to support implementation of national priority preparedness actions, and the development of the National Action Plan for Health Security.

These efforts for strengthening health systems build on South Africa’s strong commitment to achieving universal health coverage, adopted at the highest political level since 2019 when President Cyril Ramaphosa, signed the Presidential Health Compact. This five-year roadmap for health systems strengthening reforms aims to accelerate universal health coverage in the country. It outlines the roles of all key stakeholders in implementing critical tasks related to universal health coverage and national health insurance in South Africa. These include:

  • Updating quality improvement plans
  • Developing an operational plan for human resources for health
  • Improving public financial management
  • Improving access to essential medicines
  • Improving infrastructure and using information technology through public-private partnerships to scale up health systems strengthening initiatives

Background on the Universal Health Coverage Partnership

At least half of the world’s population does not have access to the health services they need, about 100 million people fall into extreme poverty each year because of excessive health spending and over 800 million people spend at least 10% of their household income on healthcare.

The UHC Partnership is committed to ensure that all countries attain universal health coverage and that people have access to promotive, preventive, curative, and rehabilitative health services of quality, when and where they need them, without financial hardship. It aims to help achieve the global goal of reaching one billion more people benefitting from universal health coverage by 2023.

With the financial support of the European Union, the UHC-P promotes universal health coverage by reinforcing country capacity and leadership to build resilient, effective and sustainable health systems.

The UHC Partnership dates back to 2011 and covers 115 countries. It has been expanding its technical work to include a special focus on health security since 2019, while maintaining efforts in favour of health systems strengthening and universal health coverage. Health policy advisors work closely together with national Ministries of Health, WHO country offices and partner delegations behind the UHC Partnership. Furthermore, these key stakeholders receive support by a large number of health experts from WHO regional offices and Headquarters as well as from the offices of the European Union, Grand Duchy of Luxembourg and IrishAid. The European Union, Luxembourg, Belgium, Ireland, France, the United Kingdom and Japan fund the UHC Partnership.