Reducing NCDs after COVID-19: a missed opportunity?

Person attending the virtual World Health Assembly from home

The 73rd World Health Assembly focused on tackling the pandemic and building a better world of health after COVID-19

If you had two minutes to speak about COVID-19 with the whole world watching, what would you say? Would you praise your country’s achievements, give advice, call for action, or ask for help? The 73rd WHA provided a unique glimpse into the world’s new reality – from the safety of our computer screens at home – as every country had two minutes to share their COVID-19 message.

“A microscopic virus has brought us to our knees” – UN Secretary General, António Guterres.

Hard-hitting statements from selected leaders began the assembly, discussing the devastating impact of the virus. Messages of humility, solidarity, and “building back better” quickly emerged, with many calling for a “stronger, more equal, and human rights centric” world, post-COVID-19. Many issued the warning that the world is only as strong as its weakest health system.

“Either we get through this pandemic together, or we fail. Either we stand together, or we fall apart” – UN Secretary General, António Guterres.  

Turning powerful statements into effective action

However, tackling COVID-19 is a complex and multifaceted problem, and non-communicable diseases (NCDs) greatly increase an individual’s chance of having a severe COVID-19 outcome; including increasing the risk of death. NCDs are already the leading cause of death in high- and middle-income countries, and will soon be the leading cause of death in low-income countries too – 71% of global deaths are due to NCDs. Decreasing these rates will have a huge impact on population health, regardless of pandemics.

However, the pandemic is exacerbating these risk factors through disrupting food consumption and levels of physical activity, leaving more people at risk of worse health outcomes due to COVID-19 in the future. Diet is a significant risk factor for NCDs and 1 in 3 people around the world is overweight or obese. For an assembly which ran for over 1,000 minutes and entirely focused on COVID-19 responses, hundreds of these minutes could have been spent addressing an issue so significant.

While the WHO Director-General, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, mentioned underlying conditions in his opening remarks, very few member states took the opportunity to discuss the links with underlying conditions and the importance of NCD prevention within the context of COVID-19 and beyond. It was encouraging to see countries like New Zealand, Bhutan and Barbados reference underlying conditions; however, given the impact of NCDs on health outcomes, we were left wanting more.

As diet is a significant risk factor for NCDs such as cancer, we wanted to hear about how countries were focused on ensuring healthy and affordable food is available for all, and that NCD prevention measures such as physical activity were a priority. Likewise, it is important that countries tackle activities that are undermining health. The food and beverage industry, and alcohol and tobacco industry, have pivoted services to respond to the current crisis.

However, these actions risk worsening the health of the population – for example, the marketing of unhealthy products to children. It is important that alongside policies to tackle COVID-19, policies to promote nutrition and physical activity, and protect health are also implemented.

We believe NCD prevention measures and COVID-19 are strongly linked and governments should integrate prevention into their policy responses. We outlined these concerns in a statement to WHA, and we also supported the Union of International Cancer Control, who highlighted how cancer prevention, diagnosis and treatment is being negatively impacted by COVID-19.

Life and health after COVID-19

While many countries didn’t focus on NCDs, the COVID-19 resolution did mention the importance of NCDs. Countries also committed to areas such as human rights, universal health coverage, resilience, and building back better health systems – all important ways that public health can be improved, and NCDs reduced. However, it is too early to tell if this is enough to catalyse greater action and to really build back better.

Until governments address NCDs and remove this threat, our world will remain unprotected if the virus continues to spread or if there are future pandemics. Now is the time to decrease global rates of NCDs. If I was given two minutes, that is what I would tell the world.