Background: Several studies have indicated that universal health coverage (UHC) improves health service utilization and outcomes in countries. These studies, however, have primarily assessed UHC's peacetime impact, limiting our understanding of UHC's potential protective effects during public health crises such as the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic. We empirically explored whether countries' progress toward UHC is associated with differential COVID-19 impacts on childhood immunization coverage.
Methods and findings: Using a quasi-experimental difference-in-difference (DiD) methodology, we quantified the relationship between UHC and childhood immunization coverage before and during the COVID-19 pandemic. The analysis considered 195 World Health Organization (WHO) member states and their ability to provision 12 out of 14 childhood vaccines between 2010 and 2020 as an outcome. We used the 2019 UHC Service Coverage Index (UHC SCI) to divide countries into a "high UHC index" group (UHC SCI ≥80) and the rest. All analyses included potential confounders including the calendar year, countries' income group per the World Bank classification, countries' geographical region as defined by WHO, and countries' preparedness for an epidemic/pandemic as represented by the Global Health Security Index 2019. For robustness, we replicated the analysis using a lower cutoff value of 50 for the UHC index. A total of 20,230 country-year observations were included in the study. The DiD estimators indicated that countries with a high UHC index (UHC SCI ≥80, n = 35) had a 2.70% smaller reduction in childhood immunization coverage during the pandemic year of 2020 as compared to the countries with UHC index less than 80 (DiD coefficient 2.70; 95% CI: 0.75, 4.65; p-value = 0.007). This relationship, however, became statistically nonsignificant at the lower cutoff value of UHC SCI <50 (n = 60). The study's primary limitation was scarce data availability, which restricted our ability to account for confounders and to test our hypothesis for other relevant outcomes.
Conclusions: We observed that countries with greater progress toward UHC were associated with significantly smaller declines in childhood immunization coverage during the pandemic. This identified association may potentially provide support for the importance of UHC in building health system resilience. Our findings strongly suggest that policymakers should continue to advocate for achieving UHC in coming years.