Multilateralism and global health diplomacy for a healthier world during the covid19 pandemic

Over these past two weeks after the resumed session of the 73rd World Health Assembly (WHA), I’ve had some conversations with other Canadian youth interested in the Canadian youth delegate role (see application form here) and I’ve been asked some great questions that I realize aren’t made very clear in the application form itself.

Over this past year, I’ve had the privilege of being the Canadian youth delegate to both the 73rd World Health Assembly and the 58th Pan American Health Organization Directing Council meetings. These two meetings are respectively the highest-decision making or ‘governing body’ meetings for the World Health Organization and the Pan American Health Organization – two significant multilateral organizations that the Canada is a Member State for and with. Canada as a Member State sends (or this year attended virtually) a delegation comprised of public servants from the Public Health Agency of Canada, Global Affairs Canada, a Canadian youth delegate, and sometimes a representative from a civil society organization in Canada. Canada attends these meetings to not only receive updates on the work of these multilateral organizations to advance global health priorities and goals, but also to keep these organizations to account in their work and deliverables. The role of the Canadian youth delegate is to provide a youth perspective and lens to the global health issues and topics discussed in advance of these meetings to help strengthen and inform Canada’s positioning and delivery of interventions during these meetings.

These past few months have seen incredible and exceptional attention paid to health and wellbeing of peoples and communities around the world. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the spotlight has been cast on organizations such as the World Health Organization and the Pan American Health Organization and other similar technical organizations that deliver public health guidance and research, crucial for core functions of public health, but certainly during an emergency response to the pandemic of a novel coronavirus. Uniquely, is the role of the World Health Organization, to be seen as a leader in coordination of an international response to the pandemic, including how to ensure similar situations do not repeat themselves again in the future.

The resumed 73rd WHA (virtual) that took place between Nov 9, 2020 and Nov 13, 2020 covered various governance related topics, resolutions not passed over the summer months with a written silence procedure, and an update on covid19 response measures including various review mechanisms for pandemic prevention, preparedness and response. Full details are available here. And a high-level summary prepared by the International Federation of Medical Students’ Associations (IFMSA) can be found here. Many Member States delivered important interventions covering a vast array of topics – in particular, the direct and indirect impacts of the covid19 pandemic on their communities. As well, many Non-State Actors, Intergovernmental Organizations, and Regional Offices of WHO, also provided similarly compelling remarks.

WHO’s Director General, Dr. Tedros, urged that all leaders must prioritize health systems to be better prepared to deliver health services and that strategies will not be successful without the people delivering them (i.e. doctors, nurses, pharmacists, etc.), and thus investments must be made to tackle a global health workforce crisis. Of note, 2021 has been designated as the International Year of Health and Care Workers, to show and demonstrate the essential role of health and care workers during the covid19 pandemic. Dr. Tedros also went on to comment on how over 50 million peoples have been infected with covid19, with 1.2 million deaths, and with more peoples that have died from the disruption of healthcare services. The grief cannot be measured. These statistics do not easily reflect the suffering and the important narratives and stories of individual people and loved ones. The long-term impacts of the covid19 pandemic, both direct and indirect will be enormous, and the type of world inherited by the next generation is hard to imagine.

Dr. Tedros also shared important developments and updates on rapid testing for covid19, the ongoing development of various vaccine candidates, including the COVAX facility (accessible and equitable distribution of vaccine as a global public good) and a covid19 technology access pool. Commendable advancements in public health include the eradication of wild polio virus and the first time the global community has committed to eradicate a particular cancer – cervical cancer. Other updates shared covered the ongoing sustained surveillance for a global response to AMR or antimicrobial resistance. As well as, necessary investments for mental health supports for healthcare workers, tackling a global shortfall of nursing workforce (shortfall of 5.9 million nurses), and bolstering essential public health functions and healthcare services. The issue of sustainable financing for the work of the WHO was also discussed, as the expectations of Member States and the global community on the role of WHO has been disproportionate to what the WHO has been financed to be able to accomplish. And finally, Dr. Tedros ended his remarks that “it is time for the world to heal”, although multiple covid19 vaccine candidates are in development, there is no ‘vaccine’ for poverty, the climate crisis, and inequalities.

Furthermore, during the resumed 73rd WHA, the various review mechanisms and committees were able to provide updates on the status of their work. Three areas of review mechanisms are currently in place to strengthen the international prevention, preparedness, and response to pandemics and health emergencies. They are the IOAC (Independent Oversight and Advisory Committee for the WHO Emergencies Programme), IHR review committee (Review Committee on the Functioning of the International Health Regulations (2005) during the COVID-19 response), and the IPPR (The Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response). While important recommendations continue to flow through various mechanisms and channels for ongoing consideration, improvement, and implementation (such as a traffic light system for pandemic response and risk, sustainable financing for the WHO, ensuring the IHRs are fit for purpose, etc.) – what is clear, is that multilaterialsm is the only approach to global challenges. These review mechanisms may significantly impact global architecture for health security and health and wellbeing post-pandemic. It is also a hope and aim that a humanistic approach is taken to strengthen public health structures, that also strives towards social justice and resilience, in order to address current and future public health emergencies – knowing that structural vulnerability are the fault lines of the pandemic impacts.

The “right to health is the most important right”.

Over the next few weeks, the application period is open for next year’s Canadian youth delegate to the World Health Assembly and Pan American Health Organization Directing Council. The application is available here, and the deadline is December 23, 2020, at 23:59 EST. Please don’t hesitate to reach out if you have questions.


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