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How improving health globally can save lives and strengthen economies

The costly COVID-19 crisis provides an opportunity to dramatically advance worldwide health and prosperity.

The COVID-19 pandemic illustrates that widespread health is essential for global prosperity. Worldwide, 22 million cases of the virus and 777,000 deaths have been confirmed and the global GDP growth rate has dropped an average of 7.5 percent so far, with a potential cost to the global economy of $9 trillion to $33 trillion. And, of course, the pandemic is far from over.

In a McKinsey Live webinar, senior partner Matt Wilson and partner Jaana Remes described recent research by the McKinsey Global Institute that details the challenges and opportunities stemming from the COVID-19 crisis and the long-term economic and social benefits of a global focus on health as an investment rather than a cost to be managed. The presenters explained how the pandemic provides a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reimagine health care, build better systems, and create a more resilient global economy.

The economic upside

People are living longer but not necessarily in better health. Although occurrences of malaria, tuberculosis, and many other infectious diseases will decline significantly over the coming two decades, age- and lifestyle-related diseases such as diabetes, cancers, and neurological disorders are expected to become more prevalent.

By more comprehensively applying interventions that already exist, the current global disease burden could be reduced by 40 percent in the next 20 years, childhood mortality could decline by 65 percent, and a 65-year-old in 2040 could be as healthy as a 55-year-old today. Seventy percent of these gains would likely result from environmental, social, and behavioral interventions plus preventive health measures. Next-generation pharmaceuticals and vaccines, cell therapy and regenerative medicine, robotics and prosthetics, and other innovations currently in the pipeline could reduce the disease burden an additional 6 to 10 percent. Global GDP could rise by about $12 trillion, an 8 percent boost that translates into 0.4 percent faster growth a year. The incremental economic benefit could be $2 to $4 for each dollar invested in better health.

Investing in health-system changes

To capture these economic benefits—as well as the less tangible but even larger social benefits—of better health across countries, governments, companies, and communities must work together to go well beyond recovery. Doing this requires a worldwide focus on four imperatives: make health a social and economic priority, keep health on everyone’s agenda, transform health systems, and double down on innovation.

Global investments would close gaps in preparedness and dramatically reduce the likelihood and average severity of future outbreaks by shifting healthcare systems along these five dimensions:

  • Always-on systems. Current emergency response systems need to be changed to integrated systems that are “always on” and partnerships that can scale rapidly during an epidemic.
  • Disease surveillance. Infectious-disease detection requires stronger global, national, and local mechanisms as well as globally integrated digital and advanced analytics.
  • Prevention agenda. So that developing threats can be identified and addressed before they are full-blown, active monitoring needs to replace the current practice of reacting to outbreaks after they occur.
  • Healthcare capacity. Health systems need to be able to maintain essential services, preventive measures, and public education even as healthcare capacity is diverted to address an epidemic.
  • Research and development. Although COVID-19 has spurred unprecedented scientific mobilization, further large investments by governments and the private sector in R&D platforms, partnerships, and innovations are vital.

Making these health-system shifts requires investments of $70 billion to $120 billion over the next two years and $20 billion to $40 billion annually thereafter. The broad economic impact and the return on investment would be tremendous: a total investment of $320 to $560 billion over the coming decade would offset much more than the $9 trillion economic loss resulting from a future pandemic similar to COVID-19.

This is a unique moment of opportunity for a broad and integrated conversation about what is possible to achieve by improving worldwide health and building more effective health systems. Prioritizing investments in better health will lead to a higher quality of life, greater prosperity, and a more resilient global economy for decades to come.

For more on the topic, please watch the webinar recording and read the McKinsey Global Institute report “Prioritizing health: A prescription to prosperity” and the article “Not the last pandemic: Investing now to reimagine public health systems.”

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