Africa: WHO Director-General Opening Remarks at the Member State Briefing on the COVID-19 Pandemic Evaluation

WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus delivering opening remarks at the Member State Briefing on the COVID-19 pandemic evaluation
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Geneva — Honourable Ministers, Excellencies, dear colleagues and friends,

The COVID-19 pandemic has left no country untouched. It has humbled all of us.

It is often said that disease knows no borders. It does not care about our political differences, and it disregards the distinctions we draw between health and economy, lives and livelihoods.

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted them all. It has exploited the inequalities in our health systems and the schisms in our societies. It has exposed existing inequities, widening and deepening the cracks between us.

This once-in-a-century pandemic has hammered home a critical lesson: when it comes to health, our destinies are intertwined.

The virus has upended health systems in some of the world's wealthiest nations, while some countries that have mounted a successful response have been of modest means.

We know that when countries take a comprehensive approach based on fundamental public health measures – such as find, isolate, test and treat cases, and trace and quarantine contacts - the outbreak can be brought under control.

But in most of the world the virus is not under control. It is getting worse.

More than 11.8 million cases of COVID-19 have now been reported to WHO. More than 544,000 lives have been lost.

And the pandemic is still accelerating. The total number of cases has doubled in the last six weeks.

Since this outbreak began, led by hero health workers, countries have worked around the clock to save lives day and night.

I will never forget the images of health workers who wore a mask for so long while on shift, that they had marks and bruises imprinted on their face, saving lives while risking their own lives. We have lost many health workers.

And also colleagues at the WHO Secretariat were moved by this, working tirelessly to coordinate the global response, to provide evidence-based scientific and technical guidance, catalyze research. Many of my colleagues told me that their inspiration comes from health workers on the frontline who are fighting day and night, risking their lives. That is why we at WHO are working day and night,

Everyone is fighting hard against the virus but so many lives have been lost.

But the health effects of the pandemic go far beyond the suffering caused by the virus itself.

It is unravelling many of the gains we have made fighting some of the world's most devastating diseases.

Hundreds of millions of children are at risk of missing out on routine vaccines for tuberculosis, pneumonia, measles, polio, cholera, diarrhoea and others. Many countries are running low on HIV medicines.

Refugees are among the most vulnerable to the pandemic, already facing limited access to adequate shelter, water, nutrition, sanitation and health services. COVID-19 could push them over the brink.

And around the world, in countries rich and poor, many more people are now going hungry, we can see poverty visibly now, with estimates from the World Food Programme that global hunger could increase to more than 270 million people. These are not numbers: these are people.

As countries struggle with this unprecedented threat, they face a delicate balance between protecting their people and maintaining essential health services, while minimizing social and economic damage, and respecting human rights.

There are no easy answers. There are no quick fixes.

But some nations have brought the virus under control. We must learn from their experience and follow their lead.

As a global community, we must learn from both the positives efforts made to suppress the virus and the challenges that have emerged from this global hardship.

It has been made devastatingly clear that the best defense against health emergencies is a strong health system. A strong health system is a resilient health system.

That is why national governments and local governments need to invest in preparedness and essential public health functions.

Universal health coverage is essential to our collective global health security. Health for all, that has been the hallmark of WHO since more than 70 years, is the answer.

After every outbreak in recent history, there are lessons that we have learned to protect ourselves better. And the world has made some progress in pandemic preparedness. But it is also clear that we have much more work to do.

For years, many of us warned that a catastrophic respiratory pandemic was inevitable. People from the health sector, even outside the health sector, and our leaders warned about a catastrophic pandemic.

It was not a question of if, but when.

But still, despite all the warnings, the world was not ready.

Our systems were not ready.

Our communities were not ready.

Our supply chains collapsed.

It is time for a very honest reflection.

All of us must look in the mirror – WHO, every Member State, all involved in the response. Everyone.

We are in the midst of the battle of our lives, and we have to do better. Not just now, but for the future. Because these threats will never stop, and in all likelihood they will get worse. But it is in our hands; we make the choices.

We need to look at the performance of our national surveillance and response systems, how we shared information with our communities, and whether we earned their trust, how we governed, and whether our global health architecture is fit for purpose. These are very important. But most important is to ask are we ready to have an honest reflection, each one of us, everybody? Are we ready to learn the big lessons and can we honestly do it?

In May, the world came together for the first virtual World Health Assembly.

194 Member States passed a landmark resolution, which recognized the leadership role of WHO and the role of the United Nations system in coordinating the comprehensive global response.

It called on Member States to implement a whole-of-government and whole-of-society approach to ensure a more coherent, fairer and effective global response.

It called for the fair distribution of vaccines, diagnostics and therapeutics.

In line with our call for an after-action review, Member States also agreed that WHO should initiate an independent and comprehensive evaluation of the lessons learned from the international health response to COVID-19.

This is a time for self-reflection, to look at the world we live in and to find ways to strengthen our collaboration as we work together to save lives and bring this pandemic under control.

Together, we now have a once in a generation opportunity to prove to each other that we can be greater than the sum of our parts.

The magnitude of this pandemic, which has touched virtually everyone in the world, clearly deserves a commensurate evaluation; an honest evaluation.

This is not a standard report that ticks a box and is then put on a shelf to gather dust. This is something we take seriously. We learn honestly, and we follow through too, honest to the assessment, and honest to the follow through and implementation.

With this in mind, I am proud to announce that former Prime Minister Helen Clark and former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf have agreed to serve as co-chairs of the evaluation committee, which we are calling the Independent panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response (IPPR).

Prime Minister Clark of New Zealand went to on lead the United Nations Development Programme.  President Sirleaf of Liberia is a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. We'll be hearing from them shortly. I was so proud that these two distinguished ladies have accepted the challenge and agreed to lead the panel.

Prime Minister Clark and President Sirleaf were selected through a process of broad informal consultation with Member States and world experts. I cannot imagine two more strong-minded, independent leaders to help guide us through this critical learning process, to help us understand what happened – an honest assessment – and to help us understand also what we should do to prevent such a tragedy in the future. So collectively, as a world to say "never again" to such kind of tragedy.

I thank you both, Prime Minister Clark and President Sirleaf, for accepting to lead this important panel. And I look forward to working with you and helping you in any way possible, putting WHO forward like an open book, so you can have full access, so you can see what was done, and calling on all Member States to open up and show them everything as an open book, so we understand honestly and truthfully.

I have the following proposals for how the panel can take its work forward.

  • The terms of reference for the panel will be developed in consultation with Member States, and the co-chairs will be in the lead.
  • I propose that the co-chairs will select the other members of the panel.
  • We encourage all Member States to offer suggestions for world-class candidates that can fulfil the role to be members of the panel that can be considered by the co-chairs. Having a longer list helps select the best panel members that can help our distinguished co-chairs.
  • I also propose that the panel will have an independent secretariat. In the past, we used to have our internal evaluation department that serves as a secretariat in independent evaluations. But this is a very unique situation and I propose that we would like to have an independent secretariat fully accountable to the two co-chairs and the panel.
  • To keep Member States up to date on the progress and any interim findings, I propose that we have one mission briefing per month dedicated to updates on implementation of the resolution and for consultation.
  • I have also consulted with Dr Harsh Vardhan, the Chair of the Executive Board, in the context of the ongoing and unprecedented public health emergency relating to COVID-19. In line with what Dr Vardhan and I agreed, I am proposing to call a Special Session of the Executive Board in September to discuss progress and to give guidance.
  • In November, we will resume the World Health Assembly, and the Independent panel will present an interim report. 
  • In January, the Executive Board will hold its regular session, where we will further discuss the panel's work.
  • In May of next year, at the World Health Assembly, the panel will present its substantive report to the health findings.

Of course, these are broad milestones until next year in May. But the panel co-chairs will decide on the details and on the needs beyond May.

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While the independent evaluation panel performs its work, there are obvious low hanging fruit that can be acted on, such as universal peer review and the binary PHEIC mechanism for the International Health Regulations, which we have already started working on. Members States were discussing this issue and we need to move on it.

The Independent Oversight and Advisory Committee for the WHO Health Emergencies Programme will also continue its existing work. As you remember, it has already reported its work from January to April.

Even as we fight this pandemic, we must be readying ourselves for future global outbreaks and the many other challenges of our time, such as antimicrobial resistance, inequality and the climate crisis.

COVID-19 has taken so much from us. But it is also giving us an opportunity to break with the past and build back better. I want to see this as an opportunity. It is a crisis but opportunities are born from crisis.

We cannot go back to the way we did things before, my friends. Business as usual has failed us.

This cannot be another blue-ribbon panel that issues a report that goes up on the bookshelf.

We must come together in a global conversation, to take these hard-won lessons and turn them into action.

My friends, make no mistake. The greatest threat we face now is not the virus itself.

Rather, it is the lack of leadership and solidarity at the global and national levels. That is why I said each and every individual should reflect. This is a tragedy that is forcing us to miss many of our friends and lose many lives. And we cannot defeat this pandemic as a divided world.

The COVID-19 pandemic is a test of global solidarity and global leadership. The virus thrives on division but is thwarted when we unite.

How is it difficult for humans to unite and fight a common enemy that is killing people indiscriminately? Are we unable to distinguish or identify the common enemy? Can't we understand that the divisions and the cracks between us are an advantage for the virus. I think I do not need to remind you because we all know that these are the basics.

My hope is that the defining crisis of our age will likewise remind all people that the best way forward – and the only way forward – is together. These are the basics, but the time-tested truth. "Together" is the solution unless we want to give the advantage to the enemy, to the virus, that has taken the world hostage, and this has to stop.

Now we will hear from our co-chairs, former Prime Minister Helen Clark and former President and Nobel laureate Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

I know through you that the world will understand the truth on what happened and the solutions to build our future better as one humanity.

I thank you.

Please note: Some media outlets are erroneously reporting that the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response (IPPR) is an evaluation of WHO and/or it is linked to the United States of America. In fact: 1) A World Health Assembly resolution in May 2020 called for WHO to initiate such a panel and; 2) the panel has been set up to review experience gained and lessons learned from the WHO-coordinated international health response to COVID-19. This involves the global response, including but not limited to, WHO.

READ: World Health Assembly 19 May 2020 Resolution

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