Africa: WHO Director-General's Opening Remarks At the Regional Committee of the WHO European Region

The now-closed 60-bed Khayelitsha Field Hospital was developed by MSF to support the nearby Khayelitsha District Hospital to cope with the pressures of peak COVID-19 transmission in the Western Cape in South Africa (file photo).

Your Royal Highness, Crown Princess Mary,

Your Excellency Mr Magnus Heunicke, President of the 69th Regional Committee,

Your Excellency Dr Alexey Tsoy, President of the 70th Regional Committee,

Honourable Ministers and Heads of Delegation,

Regional Director, Dr Hans Kluge,

Dear colleagues and friends,

It's a great honour to be with you again, albeit virtually.

Virtual meetings have been a vital tool for many organizations during the pandemic, including WHO. They have enabled us to coordinate the global response, and with a much lower carbon footprint than flying.

But I must admit that I miss the in-person interaction with all of you. I look forward to being able to see you again.

Holding our meeting virtually is a small price to pay compared with the suffering of so many people around the world and in your region.

I want to start by offering my deep condolences to each Member State for the loss of life you have suffered.

I offer my deep thanks and admiration to your health workers, who have served with distinction.

And I offer my commitment that WHO will continue to work with you and support you to end the pandemic and build back better.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank so many Member States in the region for your support and solidarity during this crisis.

And thank you, my brother Hans, for your leadership during this important period.

Your first year as Regional Director has been very different to what you expected but you have hit the ground running and achieved so much already in the past months.

Lives and livelihoods have been lost, the global economy is in recession and social and political fault lines have been exposed.

The European Region is no exception. Many of your countries have been among the hardest hit.

We are by no means out of the woods.

The average daily number of cases in the region is now higher than it was during the first peak in March.

Fortunately, the number of deaths appears to be remaining at a relatively low level - for now.

But every death is a tragedy, and there can be no room for complacency. If we do not keep transmission in check, more people will lose their lives, and there is the real risk of re-introducing so-called lockdown measures that have been so costly.

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Since the beginning of the pandemic, WHO has been working to support countries in many ways, at all three levels of the organization.

We've sent missions to several countries in the European region.

We've shipped more than US$330 million worth of personal protective equipment and diagnostics to 165 countries, including many European Member States.

The OpenWHO.org learning platform has provided online, multilingual training in 11 different courses, with almost 200,000 enrolments from the European region.

And through the Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator and the COVAX Global Vaccines Facility, we're working to ensure that if and when a vaccine is proven to be safe and effective, it will be accessible equitably for all countries in your region.

The COVAX Facility guarantees countries access to the world's largest portfolio of vaccines. When we have a vaccine, supply will be limited initially, and priority must be given to vaccinating essential workers and those most at-risk, including older people and those with underlying conditions.

In our interconnected world, if people in low- and middle-income countries miss out on vaccines, the virus will continue to kill and the economic recovery globally will be delayed.

I thank the many Member States who have expressed interest in joining the COVAX Facility, and I urge those of you have not yet joined to do so by this Friday.

But we do not have to wait for a vaccine. We must work with the tools we have.

WHO is urging countries to focus on four essential priorities:

First, prevent amplifying events. All around the world, explosive outbreaks have been linked to gatherings at stadiums, nightclubs, places of worship and other crowds.

Second, protect the vulnerable, to save lives and reduce the burden on the health system of severely- and critically-ill patients.

Third, educate and empower communities to protect themselves and others. Physical distancing, hand hygiene, respiratory etiquette and masks can all help to curb transmission and save lives - not in isolation, but together.

And fourth, persist with the public health basics: find, isolate, test and care for cases, and trace and quarantine their contacts.

Countries do these four things, and do them well, can reopen their societies, economies and borders safely.

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Excellencies, dear colleagues and friends,

There is no doubt that the pandemic is a setback to our efforts to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals and the "triple billion" targets of the General Programme of Work.

But that doesn't mean we should give up. Quite the opposite; we must use this moment to renew our focus and our commitment to achieving them.

The pandemic has demonstrated the intimate links between each of the "triple billion" targets.

Health and well-being, universal health coverage and health security are the legs of a three-legged stool that provide social, economic and political stability.

I welcome the European Programme of Work, which you will consider at this meeting, and its close alignment with the General Programme of Work.

This agenda is even more important in the light of COVID-19.

The focus on healthy populations is essential for keeping people healthy and out of hospitals, by addressing the root causes of disease in the air people breathe, the food they eat, the water they drink and the environment in which they live.

The pandemic has shone a bright light on the delicate relationship between people and planet, a relationship that must be nurtured through a "One Health" approach.

When people do need health services, countries have a duty to ensure those services are accessible, affordable and high-quality.

Universal health coverage is the goal to which all countries committed at the United Nations General Assembly last year, based on strong primary health care.

And just as many countries invest in their military capacity in case of conflict, so they must invest in robust public health capacities to prepare for, prevent, detect and respond rapidly to outbreaks when they occur.

The pandemic is teaching all of us some painful lessons.

I welcome the establishment of the Pan-European Commission on Health and Sustainable Development, which will draw lessons from the ways different countries' health systems have responded to the COVID-19 pandemic, and make recommendations on investments and reforms to improve the resilience of health and social care systems.

I congratulate you, Hans, for this initiative, and I would like to thank Professor Mario Monti and the other distinguished members of the commission.

I encourage the commission to communicate with the other mechanisms that have been established to evaluate the international response to the pandemic, including the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response and the Review Committee of the International Health Regulations.

In the months to come, there will be many reviews, reports and recommendations about the pandemic, as there have been of previous health emergencies.

The world is good at writing reviews, reports and recommendations. We have not been so good at following through.

Whatever lessons there are to learn this time, we must learn them.

Whatever changes there are to make, we must make them.

Whatever mistakes have been made, we must all have the humility to own them.

Pointing fingers will not make the world safer. Apportioning blame will not save a single life.

But by working together in humility and solidarity, we can ensure that a pandemic of this magnitude and severity never happens again.

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Excellencies, colleagues and friends,

Even as we respond to the pandemic, we are continuing to transform WHO to serve you better.

Through our special programme on primary health care, which we established recently, we will work with you to strengthen the foundations of health systems.

Through our new division of emergency preparedness, we will support you to prevent and mitigate the impact of emergencies, as well as responding to them.

Through the Office of the Chief Scientist and our division for Data, Analytics and Delivery for Impact, we will provide the evidence and tools you need to strengthen your information systems to make the best decisions for the biggest impact.

And through the new WHO Academy, we will provide in-person and online training, to empower health workers to accelerate advancements in medical care and practices to patients and communities and the academy up and running and responding to the pandemic.

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My brothers and sisters,

This pandemic will end. But it will not be last one.

We have a shared responsibility to our children and our children's children to leave the world better prepared for the next pandemic.

The stakes have never been higher. But nor has the prize: a healthier, safer, fairer and more sustainable world.

I thank you. Vielen Dank. Merci beaucoup. Spasiba. Muchas gracias.

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