WHO - World Health Organization Regional Office for The Western Pacific

10/25/2021 | Press release | Distributed by Public on 10/24/2021 20:26

Regional Director's remarks at the 72nd Regional Committee for the Western Pacific


Chairperson, Honourable State Minister Yamamoto

Honourable ministers

Representatives from the countries and partners

Ladies and gentlemen

Good morning and good afternoon, and welcome again to the 72nd session of the Regional Committee for the Western Pacific.

Congratulations to our Chair, State Minister Yamamoto from Japan. Thank you very much for taking on this important role.

I would like to extend an especially warm welcome to this meeting - and the WHO community - to the Health Ministers joining us for the first time. It is not an easy time to be a Health Minister: but I would like to appreciate your strong leadership.

Thank you all for being here - those here with us in Himeji, and everyone joining virtually. Despite the difficult circumstances that we still find ourselves in, it is wonderful to be together with all of you.

COVID-19 and the last 12 months

Excellencies, a few months ago I had a chance to talk virtually with Chrolek Bli, a 108-year old woman from remote Cambodia, just after she had received her COVID-19 vaccine.

And as we have been preparing for this week's meeting, I have thought often about her, and the extraordinary feat of science, logistics and solidarity, which enabled her to be vaccinated against the virus.

While it has been another unprecedented 12 months, it is people like Chrolek that make me optimistic, even though the COVID-19 pandemic continues to have a devastating impact around the world.

Our Region had fared comparatively well until the middle of this year, thanks to decades of investment in preparedness and response capacities. However, over the last few months, several countries in the Region have experienced surges in cases driven by the Delta variant, leading to an increase in the Region's share of global cases and deaths.

Whenever we speak about case numbers and deaths, I am always mindful of the daughters, sons, mothers, fathers, grandparents, partners, brothers, sisters, and friends those numbers represent. I'm aware some of you have lost colleagues, including health care workers. And I would like to express my sincere condolences.

This has, of course, been an especially difficult time for health care workers, working non-stop to care for the sick, and comfort the families of the dying. We all owe them our deepest and most profound gratitude.

Honourable Ministers and distinguished delegates, the Report in front of you highlights how WHO has continued supporting countries over the last year to respond to the COVID-19, while at the same time driving forward the For the Future vision adopted at this Committee two years ago.

I am proud to say that almost all WHO staff in the Region have been engaged in the COVID-19 response - either by being re-purposed to work on COVID-19 directly, or by backstopping their colleagues who were repurposed. And staff in both categories revealed many previously un-tapped strengths. I am so impressed.

We continue to monitor global and regional COVID-19 developments, and update our guidance to the governments and the public; we established the regional whole genomic sequencing network; and we have delivered essential supplies and equipment, such as PPE and oxygen supplies; we are supporting countries on strategic communications; and of course, we are working hard on COVID-19 vaccines.

When we met just over a year ago, we still did not know if any of the vaccine candidates then in the pipeline would be successful. But today, 7 vaccines have been given WHO Emergency Use Listing, and globally, over 6.6 billion shots of COVID-19 vaccines have been administered - I think it's an unprecedented achievement.

Late last year, after RCM, we established a dedicated COVID-19 Vaccine Incident Management Support Team - to focus on supporting countries to access sufficient supplies of COVID-19 vaccines, and get these into the arms of people in priority groups: health care workers, older people, and those with underlying conditions.

There are incredible stories of the efforts being made to get vaccines to every corner of the Region: from outreach to vulnerable, marginalized and hard-to-reach groups - like Chrolek in her remote Cambodian village, and to many innovative vaccine communications campaigns, and to the Pacific Ministers who have told me about their boat journeys to remote islands to personally deliver vaccines.

We still have some way to go until all countries have enough vaccine, but we have made good progress. I would like to express my sincere thanks to all partners including the host Japan, Australia, China, the EU, New Zealand, the Republic of Korea and United States, who have supported these efforts.

In all of our work on COVID-19, I believe the most important work of WHO at the regional level is in connecting countries- through our regional and country offices working as one team to facilitate sharing of information and experience, and using this knowledge to learn and improve what we are doing.

Indeed, the 'learn and improve' philosophy is at the heart of the Asia Pacific Strategy for Emerging Diseases and Public Health Emergencies, or APSED, the strategic framework which has guided our preparedness work for almost two decades. APSED will continue to guide us as we look to the future in which it seems increasingly clear that, globally, the virus will not disappear, and therefore, we must shift our focus to what it means for the world to "live with it".

But this does not mean giving up on controlling the virus, but rather - a focus on how we reduce the risk in the long term, as well as doing all what we can do to limit the emergence of new, and more dangerous variants.

With the support of APSED Technical Advisory Group, we are developing guidance for countries to plan for endemic COVID-19 - with a focus on protecting the vulnerable, and avoiding the 'red line' where health services are overwhelmed.

This will require action in five key areas: 1. effective use of vaccines; 2. continued application of public health and social measures - and adapting, adjusting and sustaining these for each specific condition; 3. expanding health system capacity, including through broader health system care pathways; 4. early detection and targeted response to 'flare-ups'; and 5. a risk-based approach to international border controls.

We will also need to keep improving our capacity in surveillance, communications, and contact tracing and monitoring. And of course, we must continue strengthening health systems with long-term investments geared towards advancing universal health coverage.

Successfully moving towards COVID-19 endemicity also means learning from the pandemic. With this in mind, in the last APSED TAG meeting, we carefully review the recommendations from the various global reviews which was reported in the previously World Health Assembly. We have begun incorporating those which are immediately actionable to our work - and developing a plan for areas which will require a sustained effort over time.

Driving forward the For the Future vision

Building a better future beyond the acute phase of the COVID-19 pandemic also means continuing our work on the many other health challenges our Region faces, which Member States asked us to prioritize when you endorsed For the Future vision.

As the pandemic continues, people remain at risk - and are dying from - non-communicable diseases. The climate is still changing, posing serious health risks. Antimicrobial resistance remains a major threat. And too many people continue to be afflicted by infectious infectious diseases that we know how to prevent and control. These challenges pose huge risks to our health in the future, if we don't take actions to change the future today.

Our work in these areas continues, albeit with some plans changed by the pandemic. And in the last 12 months we have seen some very impressive progress: such as China's historical elimination of malaria, and the excellent inroads Cambodia, Laos and Viet Nam are making towards this same goal; Malaysia and the Philippines successfully closed very challenging polio outbreaks; and tackling risk factors for NCDs, such as Brunei's adoption of a code regulating food marketing to children, and the Philippines move towards eliminating transfats.

As we confirmed in our 'stock-taking' exercise - which you will hear more about later this week I firmly believe that our shared vision remains as relevant as ever. So we have continued to focus on advancing - or in some cases, accelerating - its implementation, even during COVID-19.

For example, COVID-19 has generated a range of innovations in health and health service delivery, which we are seeking to un-earth with our Innovation Challenge, currently underway.

Our work on health futures dialogues is picking up pace - with Mongolia, Malaysia and the Philippines all engaged in long-term strategic planning for the future of health using this approach.

We continue to forge stronger connections between different areas of work in supporting UHC, by bringing together previously separate areas of work under this 'umbrella' of the Technical Advisory Group of Universal Health Coverage.

We are scaling up our work on Communication for Health, and and strengthening relationships with key partners. And of course, we remain as committed as ever to strengthening accountability in all that we do.

Learning from COVID-19

As we look to the future, I believe there are five lessons we must learn from COVID-19 - and implementation of For the Future to date - and we should reflect all these lessons in our our work. We owe it to those who lost their lives.

First, it has never been clearer that health, the economy and the broader well-being of societies are inextricably linked. Good population health is a driver of strong societies and economies. I like to commit with all ministers to use this recognition to advocate for continued investment in health as an engine for social and economic development.

The second lesson is about the importance of building strong health systems. While COVID-19 has tested all countries, clearly, those with strong public health systems - and very good clinical capacity - have been most effective at minimizing deaths and limiting the impact of the pandemic.

This lesson will be important as we move towards the COVID-19 "endemic" phase, but it applies equally beyond COVID-19. And the key to this is health care workers. Our societies have not valued health care workers enough in the past; and we must do so in the future.

Third, protecting the vulnerable. The World Bank now estimates that COVID-19 has plunged nearly 100 million people into extreme poverty. When I think about the impact of the pandemic, this is the thing that worries me the most: its unequal impact on vulnerable groups, and the potential for this to create long-term division in our societies.

Fourth, partnerships. COVID-19 has made clear that partnerships are more important to health - and the work of WHO than ever before. We need to keep investing in partnerships which will help us take our vision forward into the future.

And fifth, effectively addressing global health issues requires all of us to work together. You have heard me say this before but it bears repeating: no country is safe until every country is safe - indeed, this is a core principle which underpins APSED. The same is true for the communities and also individuals. And the only way out of this pandemic is for all of us to keep working together.

Looking to the future

Excellencies, 2021 has been another very challenging time, but there are many things that gives me hope.

When I became Regional Director almost three years ago, I said then that I was optimistic, because our Region "is home to extremely dedicated staff, committed Member States, and caring health care workers, and very capable partners". COVID-19 has shown all these things to be true.

Most of all, it is the faces of people across the Region which gives me confidence for the future - like the women leaders who I met in Samoa and Palau, so committed to improving health in their communities; the dedicated rural health workers in the remote parts of the Mekong; and the resilience of people like 108-year old Chrolek from Cambodia, who I spoke about at the beginning of this speech and you may see her on the screen

Chrolek told me that she took the COVID-19 vaccine in part for herself, but mostly to protect her family and others in her community. As I thought about everything she must have been through in her long lifetime - it is incredible to think that she was born before the Spanish flu pandemic in 1918! - I was struck by the fact that Chrolek's main motivation was concern for the health and protection of the people around her.

While many things in the world have changed dramatically in the past two years, some have not, including this Region's unifying belief in health for a sustainable future - and the importance of thinking about our own actions and how they affect the health and well-being of others, just as Chrolek did when she took the COVID-19 vaccine for her family and her community. This is why people like her motivate and inspire me.

Honourable Ministers and distinguished delegates, thank you for your trust in me in leading WHO's work in this Region. I look forward, with hope and confidence, to continuing our work together towards making the Western Pacific the healthiest and safest region in the world.

Thank you very much.