The 74th World Health Assembly kicked off on 24 May 24 and ended on 31 May. Not surprisingly, the Covid-19 pandemic was a central theme running through discussions on several items of the Health Assembly’s agenda. Another key theme which featured as two agenda items is the health workforce.
Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the Director General of the World Health Organization (WHO) set the ball rolling at the opening session. He lamented the fact that, while more Covid-19 cases have been recorded this year than throughout the entirety of 2020, there were vaccines which could now help stop SARS-Cov-2’s march. But most people in the world, particularly in the Global South, are yet to be vaccinated.
This has made it difficult if not impossible to rein in the devastating surges in Latin America and South Asia. As Dr Ghebreyesus added, more than 75% of all vaccines have thus far been administered in just 10 countries. He further informed that, while 125 countries have been supplied from the WHO COVAX facility, these supplies are barely enough to cover 1% of the populations of these countries.
Senator Mutahi Kagwe, the Kenyan Cabinet Minister for Health described this situation as a “damning contradiction of vaccine apartheid”. Adding that the world must fight “not only the virus, but another disease called vaccine nationalism”, he called for a re-evaluation of intellectual property rights to address public health emergencies.
Baba Aye, the PSI Health and Social Services Officer drew the attention of the Health Assembly to the 73rd World Health Assembly’s Covid-19 Response resolution, which was unanimously adopted, last year.
World leaders had called for “universal, timely and equitable access to and fair distribution of all quality, safe, efficacious” technologies and products “required in the response to the Covid-19 pandemic”. He thus called on the wealthier countries to walk their talk.
This would entail governments’ fulfilling their pledges to COVAX, breaking corporations’ refusal to cooperate with C-TAP and supporting the TRIPS waiver on vaccines and therapeutics. PSI argued for the TRIPS waiver now, as well as for an automatic trigger of the suspension of intellectual property rights during public health emergencies of international concern (PHIEC), calling for this to be included in the proposed pandemic treaty.
The need to protect health and care workers, the PSI Health and Social Services Officer also stressed, cannot be overemphasized. We thus called for infection prevention and control measures to be informed by the precautionary principle during health emergencies.
Health workforce issues were of high priority to PSI at the World Health Assembly. We supported the renewal of the Working for Health: Five-Year Action Plan (2017-2021), which will now run from 2022 to 2030.
But this was not without pointing out the failure of governments to take concrete action to improve health employment, in line with the plan. We further demanded the reversal of international financial institutions’ conditionalities and governments’ austerity measures which have resulted in employment ceilings, wage cuts and freezes. A paradigm shift which puts people over profit and health before wealth should guide investment in the sector, including health and social workforce employment.
PSI also strongly cautioned “against philanthropic foundations (and for-profit entities)’ involvement in driving the policy and investment agenda” needed for meeting the projected shortfall of 18 million health and social workers by 2030.
These tasks should be borne by governments as duty-bearers providing public services and multilateral institutions based on international solidarity. Governments should not simply applaud health and social workers. This is the time to invest in providing decent work for our members. Decent work also entails social dialogue and respect for trade union and labour rights.
We welcomed the new Global Strategic Directions for Nursing and Midwifery and urged Member States of the WHO to ratify and implement relevant ILO Conventions and Recommendations such as C149 and R157 to strengthen implementation of the strategic directions.
Herbert Beck, PSI Executive Board member highlighted the connections between health inequities, devastation of the planet and social inequality. Pointing out that these are all driven by free trade rules, fiscal consolidation, and corporate influence on state policy, he called for policy and fiscal policy changes to address the social, environmental, and economic determinants of health.
In wrapping up the Health Assembly, Dr Tedros Ghebreyesus pointed out that “pandemics are a threat to all of us”. And one of the most important lessons from the ongoing pandemic, as he said, is that “when health is at risk, everything is at risk”. He thus called on world leaders to seize the moment now, to break the cycle of panic and neglect.
A special session of the World Health Assembly will be convened in November to resolve on the much talked about need for a “pandemic treaty”. But, as PSI pointed out during the Health Assembly, “pandemic preparedness must not be reduced to securitization of global health.” Investment in universal public health systems is the bulwark for crisis preparedness.
In his closing words of Dr Tedros urged countries to avoid reducing the right to health to “empty words” in their constitutions. We can only add that, more than ever before, it is crystal clear that the right to health can be realized only with public funding and delivery of health and social care for all.