A "Big Insurance: Sick of It" rally in New York City. Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images.

A "Big Insurance: Sick of It" rally in New York City. Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images.

As the COVID-19 pandemic presents the greatest threat to human health in over a century, people turn to their states to resolve the crisis and protect their health, their livelihoods and their future well-being.

How leaders perform and respond to the pandemic is likely to define their premiership - and this therefore presents a tremendous opportunity to write themselves into the history books as a great leader, rescuing their people from a crisis. Just as Winston Churchill did in World War Two.

Following Churchill’s advice to “never let a good crisis go to waste”, if leaders take decisive action now, they may emerge from the COVID-19 crisis as a national hero. What leaders must do quickly is to mitigate the crisis in a way which has a demonstrable impact on people’s lives.

Given the massive shock caused by the pandemic to economies across the world, it is not surprising that heads of state and treasury ministers have implemented enormous economic stimulus packages to protect businesses and jobs – this was to be expected and has been welcome.

National heroes can be made

But, in essence, this remains primarily a health crisis. And one obvious area for leaders to act rapidly is strengthening their nation’s health system to stop the spread of the virus and successfully treat those who have fallen sick. It is perhaps here that leaders have the most to gain - or lose - and where national heroes can be made.

This is particularly the case in countries with weak and inequitable health systems, where the poor and vulnerable often fail to access the services they need. One major practical action that leaders can implement immediately is to launch truly universal, publicly-financed health reforms to cover their entire population – not only for COVID-19 services but for all services.

This would cost around 1-2% GDP in the short-term but is perfectly affordable in the current economic climate, given some of the massive fiscal stimuluses already being planned (for example, the UK is spending 15% GDP to tackle COVID-19).

Within one to two years, this financing would enable governments to implement radical supply side reforms including scaling up health workforces, increasing the supply of essential medicines, diagnostics and vaccines and building new infrastructure. It would also enable them to remove health service user fees which currently exclude hundreds of millions of people worldwide from essential healthcare. Worldwide these policies have proven to be effective, efficient, equitable and extremely popular.

And there is plenty of precedent for such a move. Universal health reform is exactly what political leaders did in the UK, France and Japan as post-conflict states emerging from World War Two. It is also the policy President Kagame launched in the aftermath of the genocide in Rwanda, as did Prime Minister Thaksin in Thailand after the Asian Financial Crisis in 2002, and the Chinese leadership did following the SARS crisis, also in 2003.

In China’s case, reform involved re-socialising the health financing system using around 2% GDP in tax financing to increase health insurance coverage from a low level of one-third right up to 96% of the population.

All these universal health coverage (UHC) reforms delivered massive health and economic benefits to the people - just what is needed now to tackle COVID-19 - and tremendous political benefits to the leaders that implemented them.

When considering the current COVID-19 crisis, this strategy would be particularly relevant for countries underperforming on health coverage and whose health systems are more likely to be overwhelmed if flooded with a surge of patients, such as India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Indonesia and most of sub-Saharan Africa, where many governments spend less than 1% of their GDP on health and most people have to buy services over the counter.

But also the two OECD countries without a universal health system – the United States and Ireland – are seeing the threat of COVID-19 already fuelling the debate about the need to create national, publicly-financed health system. And the presidents of South Africa, Kenya and Indonesia have already committed their governments to eventually reach full population coverage anyway, and so may use this crisis to accelerate their own universal reforms.

Although difficult to predict which leaders are likely to grasp the opportunity, if some of these countries now fast-track nationwide UHC, at least something good will be coming from the crisis, something which will benefit their people forever. And ensuring everyone accesses the services they need, including public health and preventive services, also provides the best protection against any future outbreaks becoming epidemics.

Every night large audiences are tuning in to press briefings fronted by their heads of state hungry for the latest update on the crisis and to get reassurance that their government’s strategy will bring the salvation they desperately need. To truly improve health security for people across the world, becoming UHC heroes could be the best strategic decision political leaders ever make.