WHO - World Health Organization

12/09/2021 | Press release | Distributed by Public on 12/09/2021 08:09

WHO Director-General's Lecture at the Leadership lecture and dialogue - 9 December 2021

Dr Ahmed Al-Mandhari;

Mr Patrick Van Weerelt;

Dear colleagues and friends,

Thank you for the opportunity to share some thoughts with you today.

I would like to recognize the Eastern Mediterranean Regional Office and the UN System Staff College for taking on this effort to enhance leadership capacities for pandemics. This is a much needed and timely initiative.

Today, I'll go through some examples and lessons for what I think makes for good leadership.

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted our strengths, and vulnerabilities.

In EMRO, as in other regions, the COVID-19 pandemic has upended lives and livelihoods.

It has exploited gaps in health systems and magnified inequalities.

Nations have come together as never before, and geopolitical divisions have been exposed.

We have seen what is possible with cooperation, and what we risk without it.

It is clear that we cannot defeat this pandemic in a divided world.

The greatest threat we face now is not the virus itself, it's the absence of global solidarity, and global leadership.

The world is counting on its leaders - to lead, and to work together.

So that brings me to example number one: good leadership is about having the vision to put aside short-term domestic political concerns to focus on the big picture.

As I have said many times, health is a political choice.

Yesterday marked the first anniversary of the first administration of a COVID-19 vaccine.

We all believed and hoped that a year later, we would be nearing the end of the pandemic.

Instead, we are in a world where the vital tools to stop this pandemic - vaccines, diagnostics and therapeutics - have not been shared equally. These drastic inequities have kept the pandemic going far longer than it should have.

Now, the death toll has more than tripled, and the world remains in its grip.

A fresh wave of cases and deaths is now crashing into Europe, and the emergence of the Omicron variant threatens to unravel the gains we have made.

Right now, our current system disincentivizes countries from alerting others to threats that will inevitably land on their shores.

It is deeply concerning to me that the countries that sounded the alarm - South Africa and Botswana - are now being penalized by others for doing the right thing.

That is lesson two: Being a leader means being brave enough to make a decision with a concern for the greater good, despite the potential negative consequences.

The steps countries take today, and in the coming days and weeks, will determine how this new viral variant unfolds.

Even though we still need answers to some crucial questions, we are not defenceless against Omicron, or Delta.

If countries wait until their hospitals start to fill up, it's too late.

Which comes to lesson three, which is to take action now, before the next crisis hits. When there is a lull in activity, that is not the time to relax, it is the time to prepare.

That means that all governments should reassess and revise their national plans, based on the current situation and their national capacities;

Accelerate vaccine coverage in the most at-risk populations, in all countries;

Intensify efforts to drive transmission down, and keep it down, with a tailored mix of public health measures;

And scale up surveillance, testing and sequencing, and share samples with the international community.

We can save lives from Delta, right now;

We can prevent Omicron becoming a global crisis, right now;

And we can prevent other variants emerging, right now.

This virus is changing, but our collective resolve must not.

Ending the pandemic is not a matter of chance; it's a matter of choice.

Lesson four for public health leaders is also about choice - about how the choices we make before a crisis occurs can leave us more prepared, or more at risk.

The pandemic has laid bare the inequities that lie at the root of so many of the world's health problems.

And while vaccines will ultimately help us bring this pandemic to an end, they will not address many of the underlying issues that make us vulnerable.

Because there is no vaccine for poverty, climate change, racism, inequality and many of the other shared threats we face.

Which brings us to lesson five: focus on the basics.

The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated that the best defence against disease outbreaks and other health emergencies is strong, resilient primary health care as the foundation of universal health coverage.

And at a time when faith in science and health institutions is being tested as never before, building strong, responsive health systems that have earned the trust of the public they serve is more important than ever.

We have seen how beyond the disease and death caused directly by COVID-19, the pandemic has severely disrupted the provision of many essential health services, in areas such as routine childhood vaccination, malaria, tuberculosis, HIV, noncommunicable diseases, mental health, sexual and reproductive health, and more.

Even before COVID-19, the world was off-track for achieving the health-related targets in the SDGs. Now we're even further behind.

Getting back on track means strengthening health systems; prioritizing investment in government funded public health functions, including water, sanitation and hygiene; and investing in primary health care as the foundation of universal health coverage.

This must also include well supported preparedness and response capability that includes a One Health approach to address the intersection of human, animal and environmental health.

Although COVID-19 has set us back in our efforts to achieve many of the SDGs, my hope is that it will be the catalyst that drives all nations forward with renewed determination to make universal health coverage not simply an aspiration, but a reality in the lives of all people.

My friends, future generations will judge us not by the crises we faced, but on how we reacted to them, and the actions we took to prevent and prepare for the challenges of the future.

We cannot - we must not - allow the lessons of this pandemic to be wasted.

It is within our power to do things differently, by coming together to take the smart, coherent, and long-term actions to keep us all safer.

In closing, I'll sum up the lessons I'd like to you take away as public health leaders:

First: focus on the long term, not just the immediate crisis.

Second: be brave, and willing to act for the greater good.

Third: never be complacent, and do not wait for a crisis to occur before taking action.

Fourth: take a holistic approach to health, because the vulnerabilities of some make us all weaker.

And fifth: never forget to focus on the basics. A strong foundation is what keeps a health system resilient.

I thank you.