The 74th World Health Assembly (WHA) kicked off this week with a resounding warning from world leaders on the inherent consequences of an unequal distribution of COVID-19 vaccines.
Lack of access to vaccines in the developing world and low-income nations would not only increase health inequalities and insecurities but would hinder progress already made in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, they say.
In his opening remarks Monday at the commencement of this year’s gathering which is holding virtually, the World Health Organisation (WHO) chief, Tedros Ghebreyesus, chided wealthy countries in what he described as a “scandalous inequity” in COVID-19 vaccines.
He said the development is prolonging the coronavirus pandemic, adding that 10 countries account for 75 per cent of the vaccine doses that have so far been administered.
“There is no diplomatic way to say it: a small group of countries that make and buy the majority of the world’s vaccines control the fate of the rest of the world,” Mr Ghebreyesus said calling on the agency’s member states to ensure that at least 10 per cent of the population of every country is fully vaccinated by September and for at least 30 per cent to be vaccinated by December.
“Countries that vaccinate low-risk groups now do it at the expense of health workers and high-risk groups in other countries,” said the WHO chief.
Paying tribute to the sacrifices made by healthcare workers around the world working to protect patients from COVID-19, he said the world’s health and care workers ”have stood in the breach between life and death for nearly 18 months”. He said ”they have saved countless lives and fought for others who, despite their best efforts, slipped away”.
COVID-19 health security
During the 2020 Health Assembly, countries demanded that the WHO initiate an independent review of how the COVID-19 crisis unfolded, so it could draw lessons for the future.
Ending the pandemic and building resilient health security is at the front burner this year, including discussions around inequalities in vaccine distribution.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel supported the idea of a “global health threat council”. She urged leaders to provide the WHO with “lasting financial and personal support”.
“We have been talking about this for years, but now it is all the more important to act,” she said.
At the main event on Tuesday, the Independent Oversight and Advisory Committee (IOAC) for the WHO Health Emergencies Programme delivered a report on the shortfalls in health security.
In a statement signed by its head, Felicity Harvey, the IOAC said the COVID-19 crisis has exposed failings in pandemic preparedness and response, and a shortfall in health security and equality across the world.
The statement further noted: “But at the same time, there have been numerous examples of global solidarity and collaboration, together with remarkable progress in research and development. Despite the challenges faced, the report concludes that WHO has maintained, and indeed strengthened, its leadership position in the global response throughout the pandemic.
“The WHO Secretariat should support member states to fully implement all the public health measures, and strengthen surveillance, monitoring and testing efforts, in the light of the new variants of the virus; the international community should address supply chain constraints to ensure the equitable distribution of COVAX doses and should guarantee investment, with a view to reducing the socioeconomic impacts of the global pandemic.”
“The first lesson we can learn from this #COVD19 pandemic is that we can only succeed together. No country alone will save itself and will save the others. Every citizen around the world has understood that this pandemic is a global one,” Emmanuel Macron, the French president said in his opening remark at the event.
President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa also shared a similar thought. “This pandemic has made us more aware of our strengths & our vulnerabilities. It has also demonstrated how interconnected we are and how dependent we are on each other for our health as well as our wellbeing”.
United Nations Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, said ”the world is at war with the virus” and “need the logic and urgency of a war economy, to boost the capacity of our weapons.”
Pointing out some grim statistics, the UN chief said more than 3.4 million people had died and some 500 million jobs have been lost since the virus started spreading.
“Further spikes and surges could claim hundreds of thousands of lives, and slow the global economic recovery,” he said.
Mr Guterres noted that “COVID-19 cannot be beaten by one country at a time.”
“The most vulnerable are suffering most, and I fear this is far from over,” Mr Guterres said. “Sadly, unless we act now, we face a situation in which rich countries vaccinate the majority of their people and open their economies, while the virus continues to cause deep suffering by circling and mutating in the poorest countries”.
The WHA, the decision-making body of the WHO, is held annually and attended by delegations from all 194 WHO member states.
The main functions of the WHA are to determine the direction the organisation will focus on in a one-year cycle and discuss the budget.
This year’s event which kicked off virtually on Monday will continue until June 1.
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