Globally more than half a billion people have been pushed into extreme poverty due to high healthcare costs, according to the latest report by the World Health Organization and the World Bank.

The findings contained in two complementary reports, launched as part of the Universal Health Coverage Day on Sunday, highlight the devastating impact of Covid-19 on people's ability to obtain health care and pay for it.

It stated that Covid-19 pandemic is likely to halt two decades of global progress towards Universal Health Coverage. In 2020, the pandemic disrupted health services and stretched countries' health systems beyond their limits as they struggled to deal with the impact of Covid-19. As a result, for example, immunisation coverage dropped for the first time in ten years, and deaths from TB and malaria increased.

The pandemic also triggered the worst economic crisis since the 1930s, making it increasingly difficult for people to pay for care. Even before the pandemic, half a billion people were being pushed into extreme poverty because of payments they made for health care. The organisations expect that that number is now considerably higher.

"There is no time to spare. All governments must immediately resume and accelerate efforts to ensure every one of their citizens can access health services without fear of the financial consequences," said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General, in a statement.

"This means strengthening public spending on health and social support, and increasing their focus on primary health care systems that can provide essential care close to home," he added.

The new WHO/World Bank reports also warned that financial hardship is likely to become more intense as poverty grows, incomes fall, and governments face tighter fiscal constraints.

"Even before the Covid-19 pandemic struck, almost 1 billion people were spending more than 10 per cent of their household budget on health," said Juan Pablo Uribe, Global Director for Health, Nutrition and Population, World Bank.

"This is not acceptable, especially since the poorest people are hit hardest. Within a constrained fiscal space, governments will have to make tough choices to protect and increase health budgets," he added.

In 2019, prior to the pandemic, 68 per cent of the world's population was covered by essential health services, such as pre-and post-natal care and reproductive health services; immunisation services; treatment for diseases like HIV, TB and malaria; and services to diagnose and treat noncommunicable diseases like cancer, heart conditions, and diabetes.

But they had not made such advances in ensuring affordability. As a result, the poorest groups and those living in rural areas are the least able to obtain health services, and the least likely to be able to cope with the consequences of paying for them.

Up to 90 per cent of all households incurring impoverishing out-of-pocket health spending are already at or below the poverty line. This underscores the need to exempt poor people from out-of-pocket health spending, backing such measures with health financing policies that enable good intentions to be realised in practice, the report suggested.