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Dr. Harsh Vardhan chairs 148th session of WHO Executive Board

Dr. Harsh Vardhan, Union Minister for Health and Family Welfare digitally chaired the 148th session of WHO Executive Board, through Video Conference yesterday.

His closing remarks were as follows:

Excellencies, Distinguished Delegates, My colleague Vice-Chairs and Rapporteur, Director General, Regional Directors, Esteemed Partners, Ladies & Gentlemen

I want to begin by expressing my deep gratitude to all of you for having participated with full vigor and commitment to ensure a very productive and successful 148th Session of the WHO Executive Board.

I wish to thank all Member States for adapting to the constraints of dealing with a large agenda and that too virtually, across multiple time zones. I am also encouraged by the widespread support expressed by many of youfor the WHO to remain fully engaged in our work to create a measurable impact on the lives of those who need us the most.

I am encouraged that we all agreethat we have a policy framework, and despite all the problems in the world and the challenges we face. We are making tremendous progress.

I am equally encouraged by the fact that we all agree that we need to further reform and defeat the status quo so that we can transform the lives of the people of the weakest and most fragile member nations.

I am most encouraged by the fact that despite the compelling circumstances that have forced us all to meet virtually at a time of one of the gravest epochs of human tragedy, at a time when we all understand that there are going to be many urgent health challenges in the next two decades, we have formed a common causewith a renewed determination to work together and ensure that nothing and simply nothing can stop us from moving towards universal healthcare for all.

I have said this before and I repeat. All these challenges, such as the present pandemic, demand a shared responsebecause these are shared threats requiring shared responsibility to act and, of course, this shared responsibility is also the core philosophy of our alliance of member nations that comprise the WHO.

The commitment I have seen this week amongst all of you makes me feel proud of our great organization.

Ever since the COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, close to one year ago, we have put up a valiant fight against the disease, with our collective efforts to suppress transmission, prevent illness and reduce deaths.

Allow me to thank the member nations that despite the wide disparity in their epidemiological trends, we are on the verge of defeating the pandemic by adopting a pre-emptive, proactive and collaborative strategy.

I must take this opportunity to acknowledge all Member States for acting with speed and scale during the rapidly evolving pandemic and displaying solidarity to help each other on a bilateral as well as a multilateral basis. The hard work and determination demonstrated by the countries have saved countless lives amid the ongoing response.

It may only be befitting and proper for all of us to once again pay our respect to those brave men and women who have sacrificed themselves in the pandemic and those who are continuing to fight relentlessly and selflessly.

The past year 2020 has been the Year Of Science when the best of humanity has shone through the gloom that descended upon us due to the COVID19 pandemic. The situation demanded setting up of major global collaborations so that scientists could share their expertise.

For this, governments, businesses, and philanthropic organizations got together to start committing resources. Therefore, it was not just the progress in science that became remarkable, but the international collaboration that ensured widespread benefits. 

The biggest success of this pandemic has been the team work and people putting the right outcome ahead of individual glory. Healthcare organizations actually focused on delivering a meaningful goal, whether it was across a nation, across a continent or across a world.

Our science and healthcare communities have exhibited that we can meet any pace, retain the quality of our diagnostics and care, build confidence and trust that speed doesn’t mean lack of quality.

I have personally always believed that the fruits of our collaboration on healthcare need equitable distribution. We must deliver those to everybody in the world, and we must not create a more unequal world.

As Chairman of the Executive Board of the World Health organisation, I’ve been talking about this aspect to countries, funding agencies, our scientists and philanthropists. There is commitment from everyone and I consider that the best outcome of 2020.

If 2020 was the year of discovery for COVID Vaccines, 2021 will be the year we face the challenge of getting it to people across the world who most need it. Here is the big role that we at WHO must play.

Engagement with multiple stakeholders and youth influencers is all the more important now to spread the right information and dispel rumors about the vaccination program and the continuation of other core public health measures aimed at ending the pandemic.

The work done by you in the past one week will contribute to strengthening science, solidarity, transparency and accountability for needed innovations as we go forward.

We had a tremendous week of discussions. Let me recall some highlights from our extensive and rich discussions on the agenda placed before us.

You all underlined the need to be swift and transparent in sharing information and the value of the coordinated response. The updates on the evolution of variants of interest and variants of concern and continued research on the development of therapeutics and vaccines were useful.

The draft decision on “Promoting mental health preparedness and response for public health emergencies” will prove beneficial in addressing the mental health aspects of public health emergencies.

The tireless efforts made by the Member States and WHO in drawing up containment strategies as part of COVID-19 response were recognized and appreciated by the Independent Oversight and Advisory Committee IOAC.

Our fruitful discussions will no doubt contribute to assessing which public health measures succeeded and what failed as we tried to contain and suppress transmission, illness and deaths since the onset of the outbreak. The lessons learnt can be utilized to make course corrections and further build core capacities and strengthen health information systems and reporting mechanisms.

I also appreciate your recommendations for a more accountable security apparatus with clear responsibilities at the field, country, regional, and headquarter levels related to the functioning of the WHO Health Emergencies Program.

I am equally concerned that there should be greater, flexible and predictable funding. I also appreciate the point made by several of you regarding the oversight functioning of IOAC as well as Member State surveillance capacity and systems which need to be further strengthened.

From a “world at risk” to a “world in disorder,” the Global Preparedness Monitoring Board pointed to the inadequacies of systems and financing in an unprepared world.

As far as we can see, the nation-state and mutual cooperation & solidarity among nations will have to and continue to be the center-piece of the health emergency preparedness and response system. Toward this end, timely reforms in the structure and operations of the multilateral inter-governmental systems are needed to reflect the realities of today’s world.

It is obvious that the efforts to reform and strengthen WHO must naturally be led by the Member Statesand thoughtfully considered, in terms of expectations and financing.

There was also a powerful discussion on the prevention of sexual exploitation and abuse following the update on the Commission’s work provided by the Secretariat. The WHO, working together with the UN inter-agency group of implementation partners, is further refining its approach of zero-tolerance towards sexual exploitation and abuse, including reporting and investigation mechanisms and protection of victims. A draft decision, co-sponsored by several Member States, was adopted to strengthen collective work in this essential area.

I fully appreciate that some of you also highlighted the mismatch between the expectations from WHO and its capacity to deliver. Stating that the increasingly complex landscape due to the COVID-19 impact and the transformation initiatives call for a clear roadmap, updates on the results framework process and program budget were requested before the World Health Assembly.

Dr Anthony Fauci, Chief Medical Adviser to the President of USA, addressed the EB on behalf of the Biden-Harris administration, announcing that the USA will remain a member of the WHO and fulfill its financial obligations, with continued technical collaboration at all levels, including through its collaborating centers. He acknowledged the role of WHO in leading the global public health response to the outbreak; convening scientists and researchers to help accelerate the development of vaccine therapeutics and diagnostics and tracking the latest developments for keeping the Member States informed.

And with this message from Dr Fauci, the 148th Session of the WHO Executive Board was etched in history.

On behalf of India and as Chair of the WHO Executive Board, I welcome the announcement that the new Administration of President Joe Biden will halt the process of withdrawing the U.S. from the WHO. We note with pleasure that the USA will continue working with all Member States with renewed commitment to multilateral cooperation and action in the global fight against the pandemic. As our DG said, “WHO is a family of nations and it requires the solidarity of nations to prevail”.

I also appreciate the discussions that took place regarding the Political Declaration of the third high-level meeting of the General Assembly on prevention and control of non-communicable diseases. Member States covered a wide range of issues under this item from evaluation of the global action plan and global coordination mechanism to diabetes to oral health.

Member States called for promoting cross-sectoral collaboration toward prevention and control of NCDs and for increased resources for these persistently under-funded areas.

On the Global strategy and plan of action on public health, innovation and intellectual property agenda and proposed resolution there were rich discussions with calls for strengthening research and exchange of knowledge and information to improve access to therapeutics, diagnostics and vaccines. There is no doubt that innovation and intellectual property rights should be harnessed to advance collective global progress in both neglected and topical areas.

I must state here that our programs must be designed with a view towards preparing our organisation to work in a world largely shaped and defined by rapidly changing realities such as the exponential increases in urbanization and globalization leading to massive progression in not just communicable and non-communicable diseases, but also sudden public health threats in the nature of pandemics. The fruits of science and innovation in healthcare going majorly to the rich countries is also a stark reality.

In this context, I was happy to see that our member nations presented the report on the social determinants of health and supported the draft resolution, recognizing the importance of ensuring health for all.

The Board was equally pleased to consider global strategies and plans of action expiring within one year; namely the WHO Global Disability Action Plan and the Global Health Sector Strategies on, respectively, HIV, Viral Hepatitis and Sexually Transmitted Infections.

The Board has welcomed the Immunization Agenda 2030 and was unanimous in recognizing the central role played by immunization programs in safeguarding public health globally. Member States also called for early and equitable availability of COVID-19 vaccines, including through the COVAX facility.

Immunization has been a singularly successful global program in preventing vaccine preventable morbidity and mortality and WHO must continue providing evidence-based and scientific advocacy to support Member States in effectively implementing the Immunization Agenda. Vaccine coverage must continue to improve, particularly to reach vulnerable sections and reduce inequities.

Just yesterday, we took up for discussion the Director-General’s report on antimicrobial resistance, which is posing a great threat to the achievement of many sustainable development goals.

Through its Antimicrobial Resistance Division, WHO is spearheading the global response to this threatalthough COVID19 has caused some disruptions in the planned and ongoing antimicrobial resistance activities.

I am certain that under WHO’s guidance member nations we will emerge stronger in tackling this challenge.

Another infectious disease, Poliomyelitis, which continues to be a cause of serious concern in some parts of the world, was also taken up for discussion yesterday. The mission of polio eradication resonates strongly with me at a personal level.

It was way back in 1994 when I dreamt of a Polio-free India. At that time, India was home to 60% of the polio cases in the world. It was through the support of numerous voluntary organisations and in no short measure the support of WHO that we kick-started the journey for a polio-free India on October 2, 1994, in New Delhi. Today, Polio stands eradicated from India with the last case reported in January 2011. India received its polio-free certification from WHO in March 2014.

I am sure with the steps highlighted during our discussions on the Director-General’s report on Poliomyelitis eradication and Polio transition planning and polio post-certification, a Polio-free world will soon become a reality.

I sincerely appreciate the support extended by my colleague Vice-Chairpersons in successful conduct of this 148th Session, despite the difficulties associated with holding a virtual meeting cutting across several time zones:

Dr Ahmed Mohammed Al Saidi of Oman, Dr Patrick Amoth of Kenya, Mr Björn Kümmel of Germany and Dr Franck C. S. Anthony of Guyana.

Our appreciation is due to the Rapporteur, Dr Amelia Afuha’amangoTu’ipulotu of Tonga who was very kind in accommodating the most challenging time difference.

As briefly outlined, the enriching statements and deliberations reflect the deep engagement of EB Member States and other partners in coordinating, leading and supporting not only the global response against the unprecedented pandemic but also other public health challenges.

I also acknowledge the role of our sister UN agencies, inter-governmental organizations, partners and non-state actors; appreciate their commitment and thank them for their keen engagement and support extended for successful conduct of the Session.

Let me applaud the WHO staff at all three levels, Headquarters, Regional and Country Offices, for their sincerity and dedication. Your work is immensely valued.

I appreciate the Director-General, Regional Directors and the Secretariat team for the energy and insight they have displayed in the ongoing support to Member States, not only in emergency response but across all spheres.

Our sincere thanks to the Governing Bodies’ colleagues, Translators and the ICT team, for their hard work they put in to ensure that this virtual 148th Session of the Executive Board, was seamless.

I also take this opportunity to convey my sincere gratitude and appreciation to all the citizens of the world who contributed so much and at such cost in bringing to life the “whole of society” approach in battling with this unforeseen crisis. To the people who gave everything to vaccines, tests and treatments this year, a big thank you.

Amidst the challenges that we all are facing, it was my personal privilege, as Chair of the Executive Board, to spend time with all of you, learn from your rich experiences and listen to your valuable recommendations.

The suggestions and inputs of delegates and participants will be very useful in guiding the work of the Organization, as we move forward with strengthened resolve and work toward building a healthier, secure and prosperous world.

I know well that all Member States are doing their utmost to overcome challenges and improve the accessibility, affordability and quality of health-care services. But the job isn’t finished yet, so we must redouble our commitments to put an end to the pandemic.

In the present context, nowhere is safe until everywhere is safe!

At the WHO, we have to ensure that the low- and middle-income countries have access to all safe and effective COVID19 tests, treatments and vaccines.

I have always said that WHO needs to be a trailblazer. Working with Passion and Commitment, wanting to make a difference in the world, and being satisfied with nothing less.

WHO’s commitment to providing “transformative” experiences for our member nations has been exemplary. The challenges of the post-COVID world are many. For this, we need a new vision. A new vision that allows this venerable institution to realize its full potential and influence.

With renewed commitments that we have made this week, let us pledge to work tirelessly to champion the cause of WHO, to steward its mission, and to strengthen and secure its future.

With these words, I conclude my remarks and close the 148th Session of the WHO Executive Board.

Thank you and Namaskar! – PIB Delhi