Universal Healthcare



Universal access to health care, without discrimination, is a human right enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Despite the fact that it is a right, there is a long-standing and widespread healthcare crisis in the United States, exacerbated by COVID-19, with countless people unable to access lifesaving care due to cost. The crisis impacts all of us, though some communities are more likely to bear the brunt of an inadequate healthcare system than others and face additional challenges in following public health guidance and accessing health care services. 

This disparate impact is felt by, but not limited to, the Black community; communities of color; Indigenous People; transgender people; people who are experiencing homelessness, housing insecurity or poverty; people with disabilities; people who are undocumented; migrant workers; people in precarious or insecure employment, including in the “gig” economy; sex workers; people who are incarcerated or held in immigration detention; and people who are working in the informal sector or with lower socio-economic status. For example:

  • According to Louisiana’s governor, as of April 24, Black residents in Louisiana account for approximately 33 percent of the state’s population yet represent nearly 60 percent of known COVID-19 related deaths.
  • According to the Chicago Department of Public Health, as of April 29, while black residents represent 30 percent of the city’s population, they account for 54 percent of the city’s known COVID-19 related deaths and 40 percent of confirmed cases.
  • As of mid-April, the Navajo Nation’s COVID-19 infection and death rates are 10 times higher per capita than their neighboring Arizona.
  • According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, Black people in the U.S. are three times more likely to die from asthma, especially women, than any other group. About 13.4 percent of Black children have asthma, compared to about 7.4 percent of white children.
  • Women in the U.S. have a higher risk of dying of pregnancy-related complications than those in 49 other countries, and Black women are nearly four times more likely to die of pregnancy-related complications than white women. These rates and disparities have not improved in more than 20 years.

There is a solution to this crisis. Instead of treating healthcare as a partisan political issue, it should be addressed as a human rights issue. That would mean putting in place a system of universal, equitable, non-discriminatory health care, and giving priority to a single-payer, publicly-funded system, so as to guarantee access to comprehensive, quality care for all people as a right and a public good. An effective and fair U.S. response to the COVID-19 pandemic would incorporate human rights in all aspects of prevention, treatment, and care. A human rights-centered response protects the well-being of all, while explicitly addressing the inequities and inequality.


  • The U.S .government should put in place a universal, equitable, non-discriminatory healthcare system, giving priority to a single-payer, publicly funded system, so as to guarantee access to comprehensive, quality care for all people as a right, and a public good.
  • Ensure that the government’s response to COVID-19 centers human rights at all stages of the crisis—prevention, preparedness, containment, treatment and recovery—in order to best protect public health and support people who are most at risk. Any vaccines and treatment developed for COVID-19 must be safe, affordable, and accessible to all persons.
  • Ensure that all women and pregnant people have equal access to timely and quality maternal health care services, including family planning services, and that no one is denied access to health care services by policies or practices that have the purpose or effect of discriminating on grounds such as gender, race, ethnicity, age, Indigenous status, immigration status, or ability to pay.
  • Ensure that sexual and reproductive health care services are available, accessible, acceptable, and of good quality throughout an individual’s lifetime.
  • Fully account for the needs of adversely impacted and marginalized groups and people in plans and strategies to respond to COVID-19 and in addressing the wider healthcare crisis. The government must also plan for groups that have been particularly and disproportionately impacted by the epidemic who may require targeted assistance.
  • Ensure that people who are incarcerated or otherwise in detention have their human right to healthcare fully fulfilled, including when it comes to testing, prevention and treatment of COVID-19. Authorities should urgently consider releasing people who are currently in detention or prison, especially those who are more at risk from the virus. Those with underlying medical conditions and the elderly should be immediately considered for alternatives to detention if they do not pose a threat to themselves or society, and there should be a presumption of release for people charged with a crime and awaiting trial.
  • Ensure that each person has a standard of living that can ensure their health, dignity, and well-being as well as that of their family. This includes the human rights to housing, food, water, clothing, education, necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, old age, or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond their control.


  • Healthcare is a human right (2020) (available here)
  • End the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 (2020) (available here)
  • International standards on the right to health (2020) (available here)


Zeke Johnson

Senior Director of Programs

(212) 633 – 4256

[email protected]