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Lessons from COVID-19 at WHA 73

The opening of WHA 72 in 2019

This week, the beginning of the 73rd World Health Assembly (WHA) was held digitally for the first time. WHA takes place every year to set policies for the World Health Organization (WHO). WHO’s guidance and technical expertise help countries build their health systems and coordinate public health responses. COVID-19 has highlighted the importance of WHO’s role like never before, but it has also exposed the extent to which we’ve failed to invest in our health systems.

COVID-19 demonstrates the importance of political will and leadership at the country and international levels to dedicate adequate funding and pursue policies that safeguard public health.

This month’s abbreviated WHA agenda focused on COVID-19. One of WHA’s outcomes: agreement on a non-binding resolution from the European Union that calls for “universal, timely and equitable access” to a COVID-19 vaccine and other health products and technologies. This is meant to ensure that effective prevention and treatment will be affordable and accessible to everyone.

Here are some other takeaways from this year’s session:

  • Global health security depends on every country strengthening its public health system. The key to preventing the spread of diseases is for countries to invest in systems to find, prevent and stop outbreaks before they get out of control. Our Preventing Epidemics partners in Nigeria and Senegal show that this is possible, and how it can be done.
  • Sustainable, robust public health solutions are driven at the country and local levels. This means that international interventions should be directed at supporting local capacity. The transition of a Maternal and Reproductive project in Tanzania to government stewardship provides examples of how advocacy can make this possible.
  • Civil society plays an essential role in helping countries develop, deliver and track the progress of public health policies and responses. Their engagement helps to ensure the political will, financing, implementation, and accountability necessary for health systems that reach the whole population. We’re calling for civil society engagement in health policy development and implementation at the country level and at WHO.
  • We need international coordination to confront global threats like the spread of viruses, with the ability to share evidence and best practices and adapt them to local contexts. This is one reason why WHO’s International Health Regulations are so important, and why GHAI has joined calls for all countries to support WHO as part of an effective response to COVID-19.
  • Robust health systems break down silos between infectious and non-communicable diseases (NCDs). This means integrated care at the primary healthcare level, along with public health policies that address the leading causes of death and disease, whether those are infectious diseases, NCDs or injuries. This has been a major lesson from COVID-19, which has been particularly dangerous for people with chronic conditions, such as heart disease and hypertension. We’re calling for responses to COVID-19 to take a comprehensive, integrated approach.
  • Prevention is better than cure. If we want strong and sustainable health systems, we should invest in preventing death and disease, not just treating them. As we support prevention at the country level, we are calling on WHO to highlight prevention at the international level, including by expanding its definition of NCD prevention.

When nations come together for the rest of the 73rd WHA (scheduled for October), we look forward to seeing how and where these lessons have been applied, and what else has been learned. In the meantime, GHAI will continue to share our own lessons as we work with our civil society partners to confront COVID-19 around the world.