Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization, joined the Yale Institute of Global Health this week to discuss the status of COVID-19 and its variants around the world and what needs to be done to manage this and future pandemics. More than 500 people joined the virtual conversation to hear how the WHO works with countries around the world on preparedness and response to not only arrest COVID-19, but other diseases and potential health threats.
Saad Omer, Director of the Yale Institute for Global Health, welcomed Dr. Tedros, who previously served as Ethiopia’s Minister of Health, by citing not only his valuable leadership at the WHO but also the comprehensive reform he led of Ethiopia’s health system. “Under his leadership, Ethiopia expanded its health infrastructure, developed innovative health financing mechanisms, and expanded its health workforce.” Omer then segued into Dr. Tedros’ role with WHO in marshalling the global response to the COVID-19 pandemic and other critical health issues. But, noted that although we have seen progress, significant challenges remain in our global response to COVID-19 and that the pandemic continues to take a devastating toll around the world.
The impact of the COVID-19 crisis pushed an estimated 120 million people into extreme poverty last year. High- and upper-middle-income countries, which account for 53% of the world’s population, have administered 83% of the world’s vaccines. Meanwhile, low- and lower-middle-income countries, which make up 47% of the world’s people, have received just 17% of the world’s vaccines.
Dr. Tedros addressed those dire statistics with a strong message regarding the inequitable distribution of vaccines as being a moral outrage. “This pandemic has thrived amid the inequalities in our societies and exploited the gaps in our health systems and exacerbated the disparities between and within countries,” he warned. “There are grave consequences for livelihoods and the economy if we do not start working together across countries.”
He went on to say that high-income countries working independently and looking out for their own interests are potentially putting many more lives at risk. He gave the example of high-income countries potentially having a near 70% vaccination rate by end of the year, but with new variants emerging, with lower-income countries still grossly under vaccinated, there is a global threat again of the mutant virus which may evade current vaccines. “This pandemic is a common enemy that we need to fight in unison. It will use our division to defeat us,” he said. “All governments need to put people before profits because making profits will be at the expense of losing many lives and at the expense of extending the pandemic.” He went on to explain that around the world, households are spending an increasing proportion of their income on health – with more people being exposed to poverty because of out-of-pocket health spending. “Globally, we are going in the wrong direction,” he said.
More than two dozen countries have signed a statement calling for a new international treaty for preparedness and response. Dr. Tedros said the WHO Pandemic Treaty is necessary to build national and global capacity, share information, share pathogens, share technology, and share financial resources – all necessary to mobilize counties and funding through political commitment. “We now know how unprepared we were and what the major problems were. Poor national capacity and global capacity for emergency preparedness and response makes us vulnerable as a globe,” said Dr. Tedros. “Weaknesses in sharing data, pathogens and biological material is very serious. We believe the treaty we are advocating for will address these gaps. Without sharing, disparity and viruses will continue to wreak havoc around the world.”
The WHO is using COVID-19 as an opportunity to learn and continue to evolve in their guidance based on recommendations from other platforms and countries to ensure they offer the best rules and regulations to address current and future world needs. To do this, Dr. Tedros said all countries need to be unified in following WHO recommendations. “I ask for solidarity. This pandemic affected every country politically, socially, and economically. The whole world has been taken hostage. I have never seen anything that has frozen the whole world,” he said. “It has demonstrated how central health is to every aspect of our lives and how health care should be a significant investment. We should stop commercializing health. Health is not a commodity; it is a human rights issue.”
He asked that each country include health care in their constitution to demonstrate how committed they are to a central health care system for everyone. “When health is at risk everything is at risk. Globally, we are as weak as our weakest link,"
Omer is a member of the WHO Technical Advisory Group (TAG) on Behavior Insights. TAG advises WHO on the many factors that affect people’s behaviors and practices which is vital to help countries design more equitable health programs and policies.
The YIGH Global Health Conversation Series was created as a venue to learn from and connect with innovative leaders in global health. To watch all the YIGH Conversation Series guests visit https://bit.ly/3eH0RmJ.
The Conversation Series is co-sponsored by the George Herbert Walker, Jr. Lecture in International Studies at the Whitney and Betty MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies at Yale.