In its 75th year, the World Health Organization remains essential – especially now, as it builds a new framework to respond to health emergencies that ensures the painful lessons of the past three years are not lost
This year marks the 75th anniversary of the founding of the World Health Organization. Like the United Nations of which we are a part, the WHO was forged in the aftermath of the Second World War. It is therefore no coincidence that the authors of our constitution wrote not only that health is a fundamental human right of all people, but also that the health of all peoples is fundamental to peace and security.
Three quarters of a century later, Covid-19 has demonstrated just how right they were. Officially, the pandemic has killed almost 7 million people, and they are just the reported deaths; we know the actual toll is several times higher. Millions more continue to live with the sometimes debilitating effects of post–Covid-19 conditions, or ‘long-Covid’. Severe disruptions to essential health services resulted in excess mortality in many countries, as people missed out on the lifesaving care they needed and immunisation coverage dropped for the first time in a decade.
But the pandemic has been so much more than a health crisis. It has also caused great economic upheaval, destroying livelihoods, shuttering businesses and wiping out more than four years of progress on eradicating poverty. It has also caused great social upheaval, with schools and universities closed, and a torrent of mis- and disinformation eroding trust between people, governments and institutions. And it has caused great political upheaval, both within and between countries.
Learning from mistakes
The key issue now is whether we will learn from the mistakes the pandemic has taught us, so that we do not repeat them in the future. For decades, the global response to epidemics and pandemics has operated on a cycle of panic and neglect. Already we see signs of that cycle repeating: the World Economic Forum’s Global Risk Report, a survey of 1,200 leaders that ranks the likely impact of risks, found that infectious diseases rank near the bottom of the 32 perceived risks over the long term.
The painful lessons of the past three years must not go to waste. We have a duty to those we have lost, and to those who will come after us, to make the serious and permanent changes to the global health security architecture to keep future generations safer from epidemics, pandemics and other health emergencies.
That is what the pandemic accord now being negotiated by the WHO’s member states is all about: a generational agreement among countries to work in cooperation – not in competition – to face shared threats with a shared response.
The accord will be an overarching framework to provide cohesion for the many other initiatives that are now under way to strengthen the governance, financing, systems and tools needed to respond to health emergencies. That includes some that have already been established, including the new Pandemic Fund at the World Bank, the WHO Hub for Pandemic and Epidemic Intelligence, the Universal Health and Preparedness Review, and the mRNA Transfer Hub in South Africa, and others that are still in discussion, including a new platform for equitable access to vaccines and other tools, and proposals for a global health emergency corps.
The long-term view
Alongside and underpinning these efforts to strengthen the world’s defences against health emergencies is the WHO’s long-term work supporting countries to strengthen their health systems and progress towards universal health coverage, built on the foundation of strong primary health care.
Japan, which itself embarked on its journey towards universal health coverage in the aftermath of the Second World War, has been a strong and consistent supporter of the WHO’s work in this area. In its G7 presidency this year, we look forward to Japan’s continued leadership and support – and that of all G7 members – for the global movement towards universal health coverage, particularly as we approach the Second High-Level Meeting on Universal Health Coverage, to be held at the United Nations General Assembly in September.
Today, 75 years since the founding of the WHO, the need for international cooperation is more important than ever. As the world’s wealthiest and most powerful countries, most of which were founding members of the WHO, the G7 plays a vital role in the pursuit and fulfilment of its mission, which remains as relevant as ever: the highest attainable standard of health, as a human right, and the foundation of peace and security.