The World Health Assembly (WHA), the decision-making body of the World Health Organization (WHO), opened its first-ever virtual session on Monday, calling for unity, a stronger WHO role and equity amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
As Covid-19 infections have ballooned to over 4.5 million worldwide and the death toll surpassed 300,000, speakers at the 73rd WHA agreed that no single country can overcome a health crisis of such a scale alone, reaffirming their commitment to cooperation and solidarity.
They also stressed the WHO's leading role in coordinating the global response to the pandemic and called for equitable access to vaccines and medications among all nations.
The discussion on Covid-19, a main topic of this year's meeting, has moved beyond a health topic and raised some fundamental questions about global governance.
United Nations (UN) Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, one of the first speakers at Monday's session, talked about how Covid-19 has exposed global fragility.
Despite the enormous scientific and technological advances of recent decades, "a microscopic virus has brought us to our knees," Guterres said while delivering a speech via video link.
"Covid-19 must be a wake-up call," Guterres noted, saying that feelings of powerlessness must lead to greater humility and deadly global threats require a new unity and solidarity.
"We have seen some solidarity, but very little unity, in our response to Covid-19," said the UN secretary-general.
Echoing Guterres's words, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus reiterated that "the two essential ingredients for conquering this virus" are national unity and global solidarity, urging the world to take lessons from the pandemic and make the world safer and more resilient.
Past experience from fighting SARS, the H1N1 pandemic and the Ebola epidemic in West Africa highlighted shortcomings in global health security, but some of the problems went unheeded, Tedros warned.
"The world can no longer afford the short-term amnesia that has characterized its response to health security for too long," he told the virtual assembly.
"The world does not lack the tools, the science, or the resources to make it safer from pandemics. What is has lacked is the sustained commitment to use the tools, the science and the resources it has," Tedros said.
Most of the speakers recognized the WHO's leading role in coordinating the global fight against Covid-19 and took the opportunity to express gratitude and support for the World Health Organization.
Chinese President Xi Jinping expressed China's staunch support for the WHO in his speech, calling on the international community to increase political and financial support for the WHO so as to mobilise resources worldwide to defeat the virus.
"At this crucial juncture, to support WHO is to support international cooperation and the battle for saving lives as well," Xi said.
Guterres called the WHO "irreplaceable," a term that was repeatedly taken up by leaders and health ministers across the globe.
Simonetta Sommaruga, president of the Swiss Confederation that hosts the WHO's headquarters, thanked the WHO for its tireless commitment to tackle the pandemic.
"Our support to you (WHO director-general) is based on our commitment to multilateralism, solidarity and international cooperation," Sommaruga said. "Today, more than ever, these things are absolutely essential and they need to be strengthened."
"In this time of great crisis, we need unity, not division. We cannot allow the politicization of this pandemic. Ireland stands shoulder to shoulder with the WHO," said Irish Health Minister Simon Harris.
Many delegates, drawing from their own nation's experience in fighting Covid-19, recognized the importance of the WHO's protocols and guidelines when the novel coronavirus broke out, and expressed willingness to work with the organization to strengthen global health systems.
There's also considerable discussion on the issue of financing. In a video message, French President Emmanuel Macron stressed the need for more funding to the WHO, which he said plays an irreplaceable role in coordinating action thanks to its scientific expertise and knowledge of the situation on the ground.
"The WHO is a legitimate world organization in the area of health. We should continue to work to improve the procedures within the WHO," said German Chancellor Angela Merkel. "We should also look into its financing to ensure that it is sustainable."
No One Left Behind
Another theme that recurred frequently in the member states' statements are calls for equitable access to vaccines and medications, and for particular attention to vulnerable groups in society and population in developing countries, so that "no one is left behind."
Many countries agreed that Covid-19 vaccines should be a global public good that will be available to everyone.
China will provide $2 billion over two years to help with Covid-19 response and with economic and social development in affected countries, especially developing countries, Xi said.
China will work with the UN to set up a global humanitarian response depot and hub in China, ensure the operation of anti-epidemic supply chains and foster "green corridors" for fast-track transportation and customs clearance, he said.
Besides, China will establish a cooperation mechanism for its hospitals to pair up with 30 African hospitals and accelerate the building of the Africa CDC headquarters to help the continent ramp up its disease preparedness and control capacity, said Xi, adding that China will also work with other Group of 20 members to implement the Debt Service Suspension Initiative for the poorest countries.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, chairperson of the African Union, urged more assistance, debt relief and medical supplies, in particular, for developing countries.
"Africa, extremely vulnerable to the ravages of this virus, needs every possible support and assistance," Ramaphosa said.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in said that his country will provide 100 million dollars in humanitarian aid this year and will continue to share its experiences in fighting epidemics with the international community.
Tedros warned that "the majority of the world's population remains susceptible to this virus and the risk remains high," although coronavirus restrictions are gradually being eased in a number of countries.
Guterres reiterated the UN's call for a coordinated large-scale response led by the WHO with emphasis on solidarity with developing countries and vulnerable people.
"We are as strong as the weakest health systems," Guterres said. "Protecting the developing world is not a matter of charity or generosity but a question of enlightened self-interest. The global North cannot defeat Covid-19 unless the global South defeats it at the same time."