World Health Assembly calls for cooperation against COVID-19

The 73rd World Health Assembly was held on May 18 – 19 online for the first time in its history. It was attended by the health ministers of almost all member-states of the WHO, and was addressed by many world leaders including President Xi Jinping (China), President Emanuel Macron (France), President Cyril Ramaphosa (South Africa), Chancellor Angela Merkel (Germany) President Moon Jae-in (South Korea), and Mrs. Mia Motley, Prime Minister of Barbados.

The World Health Assembly is the decision-making body of WHO. It is attended by delegations from all WHO Member States and focuses on a specific health agenda prepared by the Executive Board. The main functions of the World Health Assembly are to determine the policies of the Organization, appoint the Director-General, supervise financial policies, and review and approve the proposed program budget. The Health Assembly is held annually in Geneva, Switzerland.

Throughout his opening speech, WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, noted the major challenges the COVID-19 pandemic has posed to the people of the world, but also emphasized that it has united the people of the world to fight it. “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,” He said.

He underlined the importance of solidarity and international cooperation in this time of crisis, saying: “We have seen what is possible with cooperation, and what we risk without it. Dr. Tedros made it the connection between economic development and building a strong global healthcare system very clear: “How do you practice physical distancing when you live in crowded conditions? How do you stay at home when you have to work to feed your family? How do you practice hand hygiene when you lack clean water?,” He exclaimed. He added: “COVID-19 is not just a global health emergency, it is a vivid demonstration of the fact that there is no health security without resilient health systems, or without addressing the social, economic, commercial and environmental determinants of health.”

President Xi: Build a Global Health Community

The President of China, Xi Jinping, in his speech to the WHA titled “Fighting COVID-19 Through Solidarity and Cooperation: Building a Global Community of Health for All”, made a number of important proposals and presented certain initiatives. President Xi started by clarifying China’s position and method in fighting the COVID-19 outbreak. “In China, after making painstaking efforts and enormous sacrifice, we have turned the tide on the virus and protected the life and health of our people. All along, we have acted with openness, transparency and responsibility. We have provided information to WHO and relevant countries in a most timely fashion. We have released the genome sequence at the earliest possible time. We have shared control and treatment experience with the world without reservation. We have done everything in our power to support and assist countries in need,” He Said. Emphasizing the role of the WHO and the importance of supporting it Xi said: “Second, the World Health Organization should lead the global response. Under the leadership of Dr. Tedros, WHO has made a major contribution in leading and advancing the global response to COVID-19. At this crucial juncture, to support WHO is to support international cooperation and the battle for saving lives as well. China calls on the international community to increase political and financial support for WHO so as to mobilize resources worldwide to defeat the virus.”

President Xi explained that China pays special attention to helping Africa. “Third, we must provide greater support for Africa. Developing countries, African countries in particular, have weaker public health systems. Helping them build capacity must be our top priority in COVID-19 response. The world needs to provide more material, technological and personnel support for African countries,” he emphasized.

Xi stressed that China stands for the vision of “building a community with a shared future for mankind” and takes it as its responsibility to ensure not just the life and health of its own citizens, but also global public health. He said, “For the sake of boosting international cooperation against COVID-19, I would like to announce the following:”

— China will provide US$2 billion over two years to help with COVID-19 response and with economic and social development in affected countries, especially developing countries.

— China will work with the UN to set up a global humanitarian response depot and hub in China, ensure the operation of anti-epidemic supply chains and foster “green corridors” for fast-track transportation and customs clearance.

— China will establish a cooperation mechanism for its hospitals to pair up with 30 African hospitals and accelerate the building of the Africa CDC headquarters to help the continent ramp up its disease preparedness and control capacity.

— COVID-19 vaccine development and deployment in China, when available, will be made a global public good. This will be China’s contribution to ensuring vaccine accessibility and affordability in developing countries.

— China will work with other G20 members to implement the Debt Service Suspension Initiative for the poorest countries.

Debt relief for Africa

In his address, South African President and African Union chair Cyril Ramaphosa drew attention to the interconnection between economics and health care, and that any “recovery” must ultimately address both aspects of the problem. Addressing the Assembly opening session, the President recognized the “profound social, political, economic and security implications” of the virus; that it was affecting not only the health but the livelihoods of millions around the world. This was particularily true in Africa.

Recognizing that this crisis was going to be with the world for some time, Ramaphosa raised the issue of debt relief. “We need to prepare to adapt accordingly…. The African Union has made a call for developing countries to be assisted in their efforts to combat the pandemic, and to re-build their economies. This assistance needs to include debt relief.”

Looking toward the future, Ramaphosa stated: “We must press ahead with our goal of making universal health care a reality for all the people of the world, and no one must be left behind…. Let us continue to be bold and courageous in confronting this pandemic. Let us continue to collaborate and act in solidarity in the interests of the millions of people around the world”.

WHA Resolution

The resolution, co-sponsored by more than 130 countries, was adopted by unanimously. It calls for the intensification of efforts to control the pandemic, and for equitable access to and fair distribution of all essential health technologies and products to combat the virus. It also calls for an independent and comprehensive evaluation of the global response, including, but not limited to, WHO’s performance. The resolution also included a call for an independent inquiry into the pandemic and the World Health Organization’s (WHO’s) role in responding to it. Both China and the U.S. voted for this proposal. In light of the politicization and stigmatization of the COVID-19 outbreak, this step is very crucial to put the facts on the table and avoid circulating conspiracy theories about the origin of the virus, and how different nations responded to it. This will help clear the way for serious cooperation among all nations, with the WHO being the main coordinator of the international efforts in defeating the virus.

Last week the BRIX published an article calling for using the Belt and Road Initiative as a vehicle for building a global healthcare system based on developing the necessary infrastructure and industrial capacity especially for nations in Africa and the developing sector. As was obvious in the speeches of WHO Secretary General Tedros and President Xi, the issue of the economic development of nations and its direct role the question of health has clearly become part of the agenda of the WHA.