SPEECH BY WHO DIRECTOR-GENERAL Today, WHO is launching the Access Initiative for Quitting Tobacco, which aims to help the world’s 1.3 billion tobacco users quit during the pandemic. This initiative will help people freely access the resources they need to quit tobacco, like nicotine replacement therapy and access to a digital health worker for advice. Smoking kills eight million people a year, but if users need more motivation to kick the habit, the pandemic provides the right incentive.
Evidence reveals that smokers are more vulnerable than non-smokers to developing a severe case of COVID-19. The project is led by WHO, together with the UN Interagency Task Force on Non-communicable Diseases and brings together tech industry, pharmaceutical, and NGO partners like PATH and the Coalition for Access to NCD Medicines and Products.
We thank our first manufacturing partners Johnson & Johnson Consumer Health, who donated nearly 40,000 nicotine patches. We are also pleased to introduce Florence, the world and WHO’s first-ever digital health worker, based on artificial intelligence. Florence dispels myths around COVID-19 and tobacco and helps people develop a personalized plan to quit. Florence is available 24/7 via video stream or text to help people access reliable information. Florence was created with technology developed by San Francisco and New Zealand based company Soul Machines, with support from Amazon Web Services and Google Cloud.
WHO is in the final stages of adding more partners and encourages pharmaceutical and tech companies to join this initiative, which will help people reduce their risk of COVID-19 and lead healthier lives. We will first launch the initiative in Jordan and then roll it out globally over the coming months. To tell you more about this initiative, I’d like to introduce my sister Her Royal Highness Princess Dina of Jordan.
In the last six weeks, cases have more than doubled. Across all walks of life, we are all being tested to the limit. For those in poverty, with little or no access to quality health services, it’s not only COVID-19 that threatens lives and livelihoods. Other diseases like measles, polio and malaria all thrive when immunization is paused and supply chains for medical supplies are interrupted. WHO continues to work with partners to ensure that the poorest and most marginalized are prioritized. That means restarting routine immunization and ensuring that medical supplies reach health workers across the world.
There’s a lot of work still to be done…… From countries where there is exponential growth to places that are loosening restrictions and now starting to see cases rise. We need leadership, community participation, and collective solidarity. Only aggressive action combined with national unity and global solidarity can turn this pandemic around. There are many examples from around the world that have shown that even if the outbreak is very intense, it can still be brought back under control. And some of these examples are Italy, Spain and South Korea, and even in Dharavi – a densely packed area in the megacity of Mumbai – a strong focus on community engagement and the basics of testing, tracing, isolating and treating all those that are sick is key to breaking the chains of transmission and suppressing the virus.
As we continue to tackle the pandemic, we are also looking into the origins of the virus. Two WHO experts are currently en route to China to meet with fellow scientists and learn about the progress made in understanding the animal reservoir for COVID-19 and how the disease jumped between animals and humans. This will help lay the groundwork for the WHO-led international mission into the origins. For all the challenges that COVID-19 has caused, it has also shown the way forward for other challenges that threaten humanity. The crisis of growing antimicrobial resistance is a slow motion tsunami, where despite the rise in resistant infections, the research and development of new antibiotics has not caught up. Unless we take quick and sustained action, we risk a doomsday global scenario where common injuries and illnesses return to become major killers. The AMR Action Fund aims to tackle this by strengthening and accelerating the research and development of antibiotics through game-changing investments into biotechnology companies around the world.
Whether it’s COVID-19 or AMR, the best shot we have is to work together in national unity and global solidarity. There is concern as a growing number of countries are experiencing a sharp rise in cases. So far, in less than five months, the virus has claimed 11 959 lives, overtaking the 11 308 lives lost in the world’s worst Ebola outbreak in West Africa between 2014 and 2016. This is contained in a World Health Organisation’s statement issued in Brazzaville. Credited to WHO Director-General, Dr. Tedros, cases have more than doubled in 22 countries in the region over the past month. Nearly two-thirds of countries are experiencing community transmission. Algeria, Egypt, Ghana, Nigeria and South Africa account for about 71% of COVID-19 cases. South Africa alone accounts for 43% of the continent’s total cases.
However, the accelerating growth trend is not uniform across the continent, with some countries recording a steady rise in cases, indicating a protracted pandemic. Eritrea, Gambia, Mali, Seychelles, and Togo are witnessing long doubling times and low growth rates. Seychelles had not experienced a case in nearly two months, but in the past week had dozens of new imported cases, linked to crew members of an international fishing vessel. There are also some signs of progress as 10 countries have experienced a downward trend over the past month. Although Egypt accounts for 15 percent of cumulative cases, it has seen a decline in the past week.
TAKE CARE! “With more than a third of countries in Africa doubling their cases over the past month, the threat of COVID-19 overwhelming fragile health systems on the continent is escalating,” said Dr Matshidiso Moeti, World Health Organization (WHO) Director for Africa. “So far the continent has avoided disaster and if countries continue to strengthen key public health measures such as testing, tracing contacts and isolating cases, we can slow down the spread of the virus to a manageable level.” Eighty-eight percent of COVID-19 infections are among people aged 60 and below, likely due to Africa’s relatively young population. However, the likelihood of dying from COVID-19 rises with increasing age and the existence of co-morbidities, with the risk of death among patients aged 60 years and above being 10 times higher compared with those below 60.
“Communities across the continent have a crucial role to play in controlling the pandemic, especially as countries begin easing lockdowns and opening up their borders,” said Dr Ahmed Al-Mandhari, WHO Director for the Eastern Mediterranean. “As governments continue to implement public health measures, individuals must remain as cautious and vigilant as ever to protect themselves, their families, and their communities. Hand washing, mask use, physical distancing and other preventative measures are key to controlling transmission, saving lives, and ensuring that already overwhelmed health systems are not stretched to breaking point.”
As COVID-19 continues to spread, thousands of health workers have also fallen ill. Equipping and protecting health workers is one of the central pillars of the COVID-19 response.
WHO is working to support countries respond to COVID-19 by providing technical guidance, crucial medical equipment and has remotely trained more than 25 000 health workers. WHO has also organized more than 420 shipments of key equipment, including more than 3000 oxygen concentrators, 23 000 GeneXpert diagnostic testing machines and almost 4 million pieces of personal protective equipment for health care workers.
WHO Director-General remarks at “Civil society engagement in COVID-19 response at national and local levels”
Webinar organized by WHO Health and Multilateral Partnership Department (HMP)
It is a privilege to convene this webinar with representatives of civil society from all over the world. COVID-19 continues its deadly path across the planet, as we all know. More than 11.5 million cases have now been reported to WHO and over 535,000 lives have been lost. Our only hope to overcome this pandemic is by working in solidarity at the local, national, and international levels.
Civil society – all of you here today – has played a critical role since the outbreak began, highlighting the needs of the most vulnerable, fighting for an equitable response and holding decision-makers to account. Yet, it is deeply worrying that a survey conducted by the Civil Society Engagement Mechanism of UHC2030 and the WHO Social Participation Technical Network has shown low engagement of civil society by many governments in their COVID-19 responses.
We have also discussed this issue last time we met. To succeed in pushing back this virus, we must urgently address that lack of engagement. WHO acknowledges that our own dialogue with civil society on COVID-19 could have begun earlier – a lot earlier. That is why we are here today, for what is the first in a series of webinars that we plan to hold on your role in the response. We will be listening carefully to what you say.
We want to hear examples of what is working on the ground as well as what the main obstacles are. We want to discuss how WHO can help encourage Member States to expand the role that civil society is playing in their responses. We want you to help us highlight the most urgent topics and organize these discussions together with you. In the long term, I hope this will become a model for WHO’s engagement with civil society in everything that we do.
As you know, I have experienced firsthand the power and importance of community participation in public health. I spent years fighting the scourge of malaria in Ethiopia, leading community programs aimed at improving early diagnosis and treatment. That experience showed me that, whether at the local, national or international level, public health measures can only be fully effective when civil society and communities are properly engaged. Not only engagement, actually community ownership.
During the pandemic, we have seen how important public trust is in the successful implementation of public health measures needed to tackle the spread of the virus. And this is not just about the immediate response. It is essential that civil society is front-and-center in building back better and ensuring greater equity and resilience in health systems, communities and economies.
My ambition for these sessions is that they will inform the development of concrete proposals on how civil society can better contribute to the pandemic response and beyond, and how we at WHO can work closer together with you. Thank you again for joining us today. I look forward to your questions and reflections