March 3, 2021

WHO Director−General’s opening remarks at the media briefing on COVID−19 – 29 January 2021

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World Health Organization
Tomorrow marks one year since I declared a public health emergency of international concern over the outbreak of novel coronavirus – the highest level of alarm under international law.  
There is now the real danger that the very tools that could help to end the pandemic – vaccines – may exacerbate those same inequalities. My message to governments is to vaccinate your health workers and older people, and share excess doses with COVAX, so other countries can do the same.  
This week we have released two products to close gaps in care and improve health outcomes globally. The first is the Essential Diagnostics List, a basket of diagnostics that WHO recommends should be available at point-of-care and in laboratories to improve timely and life-saving diagnosis. The second product is a new 10-year plan for neglected tropical diseases – a set of 20 illnesses that affect more than a billion people, most of them poor.

Good morning, good afternoon and good evening.

Tomorrow marks one year since I declared a public health emergency of international concern over the outbreak of novel coronavirus – the highest level of alarm under international law.

At the time, there were fewer than 100 cases of the disease we now call COVID-19, and no deaths, outside China.

This week, we reached 100 million reported cases. More cases have been reported in the past two weeks than during the first six months of the pandemic.

A year ago, I said the world had a “window of opportunity” to prevent widespread transmission of this new virus.

Some countries heeded that call; some did not.

Now, vaccines are giving us another window of opportunity to bring the pandemic under control. We must not squander it.

The pandemic has exposed and exploited the inequalities of our world.

There is now the real danger that the very tools that could help to end the pandemic – vaccines – may exacerbate those same inequalities.

Vaccine nationalism might serve short-term political goals. But it’s ultimately short-sighted and self-defeating.

We will not end the pandemic anywhere until we end it everywhere.

The world has come to a critical turning point in the pandemic.

But it’s also a turning point in history: faced with a common crisis, can nations come together in a common approach?

When a village is on fire, it makes no sense for a small group of people to hoard all the extinguishers to defend their own houses.

The fire will be put out faster if everyone has an extinguisher and works together, in unison.

More vaccines are being developed, approved and produced. There will be enough for everyone.

But for now, vaccines are a limited resource. We must use them as effectively and as fairly as we can. If we do that, lives will be saved.

That’s why I have challenged government and industry leaders to work together to ensure that in the first 100 days of 2021, vaccination of health workers and older people is underway in all countries.

My message to governments is to vaccinate your health workers and older people, and share excess doses with COVAX, so other countries can do the same.

My message to people in countries that are now rolling out vaccines is: Use your voice to advocate for your government to share doses.

If you are someone at lower risk, please wait your turn.

Health and care workers have been on the frontlines of the pandemic, but are often under-protected and over-exposed. They need vaccines now.

They and their families have already paid an extremely high price in this pandemic.

Protecting the people who protect us is the right and smart thing to do.

In the early days of the pandemic, as you remember, people showed their love and appreciation for health workers by applauding on their balconies.

Now it’s time to show our love and appreciation for health workers by making sure all health workers are vaccinated.

Today, I’m honoured to be joined by two health workers who have been delivering health services throughout the pandemic.

Harriet Nayiga is a midwife from Uganda. Harriet, thank you so much for joining us today. Please tell us about your experience working through the pandemic.

[HARRIET NAYIGA ADDRESSED THE MEDIA]

Harriet, thank you so much and I hear your call that you would love to be vaccinated so that you know you are safe to protect the mothers and children you work with. Thank you so much again. Asante sana, my sister.

Now to our second guest, Sana Baloch is a nurse from Pakistan who started her career during the pandemic.

Sana, thank you so much for joining us today, and we look forward to hearing about your experience working on the pandemic and your hopes for the year ahead. Sana, you have the floor.

[SANA BALOCH ADDRESSED THE MEDIA]

Thank you, Sana and Harriet, for joining us today. You have my deep respect and admiration for the work you do every day to save lives and deliver health services to those who need them most. We’re proud of you.

And you have my commitment that we will do everything we can to ensure you and your colleagues are vaccinated as soon as possible.

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The theme for World Health Day this year is health equity.

Equity is at the heart of everything WHO does. This week we have released two products to close gaps in care and improve health outcomes globally.

The first is the Essential Diagnostics List, a basket of diagnostics that WHO recommends should be available at point-of-care and in labs to improve timely and life-saving diagnosis.

The COVID-19 pandemic has reinforced the value of timely and accurate diagnostics to save lives. Without them, you are flying blind.

The latest edition of the Essential Diagnostics List includes tests for the COVID-19 virus, expands the suite of tests for vaccine-preventable and infectious diseases and non-communicable diseases such as cancer and diabetes, and introduces a section on endocrinology, which is important for reproductive and women’s health.

The second product is a new 10-year plan for neglected tropical diseases – a set of 20 illnesses that affect more than a billion people, most of them poor.

The plan includes ambitious but achievable targets to reduce the number of people who need treatment for a neglected tropical disease by 90%; to achieve the elimination of at least one disease in 100 countries; and to eliminate two diseases – guinea worm and yaws – globally, by 2030.

Together, WHO and our partners are working to ensure neglected tropical diseases are neglected no more.

These are just two examples of the many ways WHO works every day to fulfil our mission to promote health, keep the world safe and serve the vulnerable.

I thank you. Fadela, back to you.

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