Strengthening consumer protection in the provision of health services in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic

This report contributes to Phase 1 of the United Nations Social Protection Project - 2023Y: Strengthening Social Protection for Pandemic Responses: Identifying the Vulnerable, Aiding Recovery and Building Resilience.

It takes inspiration from the words of the United Nations Secretary-General during the early days of the pandemic: “We simply cannot return to where we were before COVID-19 struck, with societies unnecessarily vulnerable to crisis. We need to build a better world.” (2 April 2020)

The role of health services is obvious. Perhaps less obvious is the role, or potential role, of consumer protection in health.

The policing and suppression of such practices as price manipulation of health products on the retail market, or of misleading advertisements for ‘miracle cures’ are known and have been widely applied by member States during the COVID-19 pandemic.

This paper sets out a wide-range of consumer protection practices that are applicable to health. The report does not evaluate the responses to COVID-19, but rather, identifies needs that have emerged and which, therefore, apply to possible future pandemics as well.

It takes into account the economic impact and the need to protect those people who work in the informal economy and who are consequently excluded from many social protection entitlements, including at times, affordable health care.

The paper reports on measures taken by consumer protection agencies to protect consumers from bad practices, such as scams.

It also identifies the need to make far reaching arrangements to deal with long term consumer commitments such as consumer credit repayments, rents, or home loans. These are discussed under measures relating to “force majeure”, (sometimes known in insurance parlance as “Acts of God”). Management of the economic impact would be incomplete without consideration of the consumer dimension.