The World Health Organisation (WHO) chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus on May 18 said we need a 'healthy, safe, fair' world while addressing the opening of the 73rd World Health Assembly (WHA). Dr Tedros opened his speech by lauding “the incredible contribution that nurses and midwives make every day, in every country.” However, he also noted that amid the coronavirus pandemic “the world is facing a shortfall of 6 million nurses to achieve and sustain universal health coverage.” Here is the full statement of the WHO chief at the first-ever virtual WHA.
Dr Tedros said the year was supposed to be an opportunity to thank nurses and midwives for their incredible contribution but the pandemic “has robbed us of that opportunity”. Further he noted the sacrifices made by the healthcare workers who have been at the frontline of the fight against pandemic.
“As you know, this year is the International Year of the Nurse and the Midwife. This Assembly was intended to be a moment of recognition for the incredible contribution that nurses and midwives make every day, in every country. The pandemic has robbed us of that opportunity. But it has only served to illustrate why nurses, midwives and all health workers are so important. Nurses and midwives have been on the frontlines of the fight against COVID-19, putting themselves in harm’s way. Many have made the ultimate sacrifice in service of humanity.”
“Now more than ever, the world needs nurses and midwives,” he added.
“From nurses, doctors & midwives to technicians & administrators, millions of healthcare workers are putting themselves in harm's way every day to protect us. We owe them our deepest appreciation and solidarity.”
“The world has confronted several pandemics before. This is the first caused by a coronavirus. This is a dangerous enemy, with a dangerous combination of features: this virus is efficient, fast, and fatal. It can operate in the dark, spread silently if we’re not paying attention, then suddenly explode if we aren’t ready. And moves like a bushfire. We have seen the same pattern repeated in cities and countries the world over. We must treat this virus with the respect and attention it deserves. More than 4-and-a-half million cases of COVID-19 have now been reported to WHO, and more than 300,000 people have lost their lives. But numbers don’t even begin to tell the story of this pandemic. Each loss of life leaves a scar for families, communities and nations. The health impacts of the pandemic extend far beyond the sickness and death caused by the virus itself. The disruption to health systems threatens to unwind decades of progress against maternal and child mortality, HIV, malaria, tuberculosis, noncommunicable diseases, mental health, polio and many other of the most urgent health threats.”
“Early serology studies are painting a consistent picture: even in the worst-affected regions, the proportion of the population with the tell-tale antibodies is no more than 20 percent, and in most places, less than 10 percent. In other words: the majority of the world’s population remains susceptible to this virus. The risk remains high and we have a long road to travel.”
This is so much more than a health crisis
The WHO chief said that the health impacts of the pandemic extend far beyond the sickness and death caused by the virus itself.
“The disruption to health systems threatens to unwind decades of progress against maternal and child mortality, HIV, malaria, tuberculosis, noncommunicable diseases, mental health, polio and many other of the most urgent health threats. And yet this is so much more than a health crisis. Lives and livelihoods have been lost or upended. Hundreds of millions of people have lost their jobs. Fear and uncertainty abound. The global economy is headed for its sharpest contraction since the Great Depression. The pandemic has brought out the best – and worst – of humanity. Fortitude and fear; solidarity and suspicion; rapport and recrimination. This contagion exposes the fault lines, inequalities, injustices and contradictions of our modern world.”
“It has highlighted our strengths, and our vulnerabilities. Science has been hailed and scorned. Nations have come together as never before, and geopolitical divisions have been thrown into sharp relief. We have seen what is possible with cooperation, and what we risk without it. The pandemic is a reminder of the intimate and delicate relationship between people and planet. Any efforts to make our world safer are doomed to fail unless they address the critical interface between people and pathogens, and the existential threat of climate change that is making our earth less habitable.”
Amid the criticism that the global health agency took too long to declare the state of emergency, WHO chief defended the global health body and said, “WHO raised alarm early” adding that “We supported countries to implement guidelines.” Tedros said that the WHO had notified countries, issued guidance for health care workers within 10 days. He also added that the organisation had also declared a global health emergency on January 30, when there were less than 100 cases and no death outside China.
“Since day one, WHO has stood shoulder-to-shoulder with countries in these darkest of hours. WHO sounded the alarm early, and we sounded it often. We notified countries, issued guidance for health workers within 10 days, and declared a global health emergency — our highest level of alert — on the 30th of January. At the time, there were less than 100 cases and no deaths outside China. We have provided technical guidance and strategic advice, based on the latest science and experience.”
“We have supported countries to adapt and implement that guidance. We have shipped diagnostics, personal protective equipment, oxygen and other medical supplies to more than 120 countries. We have trained more than 2.6 million health workers, in 23 languages. We have driven research and development, through the Solidarity Trial. We have called for equitable access to vaccines, diagnostics and therapeutics through the ACT Accelerator; We have informed, engaged and empowered people. We have fought the infodemic, combating myths with reliable information. And we have called consistently for the two essential ingredients for conquering this virus: national unity and global solidarity.”
The WHO chief noted that In less than five months, the pandemic has encircled the globe. He added that all countries have faced challenges in coming to grips with this virus.
“Six months ago, it would have been inconceivable to most that the world’s biggest cities would fall eerily quiet; that shops, restaurants, schools and workplaces would be closed; that global travel would grind to a standstill; that simply shaking hands could be life-threatening. Terms once used only by epidemiologists, like “reproduction number”, “physical distancing” and “contact tracing” have become common parlance.”
“In less than five months, the pandemic has encircled the globe. All countries have faced challenges in coming to grips with this virus, rich and poor, large and small. Low-income countries, small island developing states and those suffering from violence and conflict are trying to confront this threat in the most challenging of circumstances.”
“Some countries are succeeding in preventing widespread community transmission; some have issued stay-at-home orders and imposed severe social restrictions to suppress community transmission; some are still bracing for the worst; and some are now assessing how to ease the restrictions that have exacted such a heavy social and economic toll.”
“WHO fully understands and supports the desire of countries to get back on their feet and back to work. It’s precisely because we want the fastest possible global recovery that we urge countries to proceed with caution. Countries that move too fast, without putting in place the public health architecture to detect and suppress transmission, run a real risk of handicapping their own recovery.”
The WHO chief welcomed the proposed resolution seeking an independent and impartial probe into the COVID-19 response.
“WHO is committed to transparency, accountability and continuous improvement. For us, change is a constant. In fact, the existing independent accountability mechanisms are already in operation, since the pandemic started. The Independent Oversight Advisory Committee has today published its first report on the pandemic, with several recommendations for both the Secretariat and Member States.”
“In that spirit, we welcome the proposed resolution before this Assembly, which calls for a step-wise process of impartial, independent and comprehensive evaluation. To be truly comprehensive, such an evaluation must encompass the entirety of the response by all actors, in good faith.”
“So, I will initiate an independent evaluation at the earliest appropriate moment to review experience gained and lessons learned, and to make recommendations to improve national and global pandemic preparedness and response.”
Dr Tedros further warned, “But one thing is abundantly clear. The world must never be the same.”
“We do not need a review to tell us that we must all do everything in our power to ensure this never happens again. Whatever lessons there are to learn from this pandemic, the greatest failing would be to not learn from them, and to leave the world in the same vulnerable state it was before. If there is anything positive to come from this pandemic, it must be a safer and more resilient world.”
The WHO chief highlighted that some of the lessons learnt from the earlier virus outbreaks were implemented while others went unheeded after the review. He said said that earlier reviews of SARS, the H1N1 pandemic and Ebola epidemic underlined the shortcomings in global health security and made numerous recommendations for countries to address those gaps.
"Reviews after SARS, the H1N1 pandemic & the West African Ebola epidemic highlighted shortcomings in global health security & made numerous recommendations for countries to address those gaps. Some were implemented; others went unheeded. The SARS outbreak gave rise to the revision of the International Health Regulations, in 2005. The H1N1 pandemic saw the creation of the Pandemic Influenza Preparedness Framework. And the Ebola outbreak of 2014 and 15 led to the establishment of the Pandemic Emergency Financing Facility, the WHO Emergencies Programme and the Independent Oversight Advisory Committee."
"The time has come to weave together the disparate strands of global health security into an unbreakable chain – a comprehensive framework for epidemic & pandemic preparedness. Today I am calling on all nations to resolve that they will do everything it takes to ensure that the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic is never repeated. To be successful, we must all commit to mutual ownership and accountability.”
“The WHO Results Report, launched today, provides a comprehensive picture of what WHO, its Member States and partners have achieved in the past two years. On healthy populations, we’ve made important progress to improve the air people breathe, the food they eat, the water they drink, the roads they use, and the conditions in which they live and work are the most important, actually, in bringing health.”