April 13, 2021

WHO Director-General’s opening remarks at the media briefing on COVID-19 – 8 March 2021

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  • n the 30th of January last year, I declared a global health emergency over the spread of the novel coronavirus. At the time, outside China there were less than 100 cases of COVID-19, and no deaths. I wish to be very clear: a public health emergency of international concern is the highest level of alarm under international law.   
  • Today is International Women’s Day. In many ways, women have suffered disproportionately from the pandemic. But women have also been at the forefront of the response. That’s why in February, WHO launched the Gender Equal Health and Care Workforce Initiative, to increase the proportion of women in leadership in health and care. 
  • To mark International Women’s Day, WHO is today launching a new Global Breast Cancer Initiative, to reduce mortality from breast cancer by 2.5% every year until 2040, saving 2.5 million lives. 

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Good morning, good afternoon and good evening.

On the 30th of January last year, I declared a global health emergency over the spread of the novel coronavirus.

At the time, outside China there were less than 100 cases of COVID-19, and no deaths.

I wish to be very clear: a public health emergency of international concern is the highest level of alarm under international law.

Over the next days and weeks, we continued to sound that alarm loud and clear, and we continued giving countries the strategies, the guidance and the tools they needed to prepare for, prevent, detect and respond to the spread of this new virus.

On the 5th of February, we started our daily press conferences, informing the world about the risks this new virus posed and the steps that governments and individuals needed to take to stay safe.

We continued to warn that the world had a narrow window of opportunity to prepare for and prevent a potential pandemic.

One of the things we still need to understand is why some countries acted on those warnings, while others were slower to react.

In the following weeks, the number of affected countries and the number of cases globally grew rapidly, which led us to describe COVID-19 as a pandemic on the 11th of March last year.

But we must be clear that that was not the moment at which we sounded the highest level of alarm. That moment was on the 30th of January.

Right now, WHO’s focus is on supporting all countries to end the pandemic, including with vaccines and the public health measures that have been the bedrock of the response for 15 months.

We have come so far, we have suffered so much, and we have lost so many. We cannot – we must not – squander the progress we have made.

We have the tools to control the pandemic, but we can only do it if we use them consistently and equitably.

Science, solutions and solidarity remain our guide. There are no short cuts.

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As you know, today is International Women’s Day.

In many ways, women have suffered disproportionately from the pandemic.

We have seen appalling increases in violence against women, and reduced access to services for sexual and reproductive health.

In relative terms, employment losses have been higher for women than for men.

Women have also borne an additional and disproportionate burden of care for children and older people.

But women have also been at the forefront of the response.

About 70% of all health workers globally are women, and they have played a key role in delivering care and saving lives.

But although they make up the majority of the global health workforce, women only hold 25% of leadership roles in health.

That’s why in February, WHO launched the Gender Equal Health and Care Workforce Initiative, to increase the proportion of women in leadership in health and care;

To promote equal pay;

To protect women in health and care from sexual harassment and violence at work;

And to ensure safe and decent working conditions for women health and care workers, including access to personal protective equipment and vaccines against COVID-19.

To talk about more about the initiative, today I’m delighted to welcome Dr Roopa Dhatt, the Executive Director of Women in Global Health.

Roopa, welcome and thank you for joining us today. You have the floor.

[DR DHATT ADDRESSED THE MEDIA]

Thank you so much, Roopa, and we look forward to our continued partnership to ensure women everywhere get the opportunities, the recognition, and the safe and dignified working conditions they deserve, and I hope the MoU we signed with your organization will enhance that.

Around the world, women scientists are leading research and response in many areas of health.

A new “Women in Science” compendium compiled by the Special Programme for Research and Training in Tropical Diseases, which is based at WHO, celebrates 15 women scientists working in Africa, Latin America, and Asia.

Today I’m delighted to be joined two women who created two of the COVID-19 vaccines now being rolled out globally: Professor Sarah Gilbert from the University of Oxford, who developed the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine; and Dr Özlem Türeci, who is the co-founder and Chief Medical Officer of BioNTech, and developer of the BioNTech-Pfizer vaccine.

Professor Gilbert and Dr Türeci, it’s an honour to have both of you with us today. Congratulations to both of you for your pioneering work, and on behalf of the whole world, thank you for the vaccines that are now bringing hope to so many people. Professor Gilbert, you have the floor.

[PROFESSOR GILBERT ADDRESSED THE MEDIA]

Thank you so much Professor Gilbert. Dr Türeci, over to you.

[DR TÜRECI ADDRESSED THE MEDIA]

Thank you so much, Dr Türeci, and thank you once again to you and Professor Gilbert for the incredible contribution you have made.

Finally, to mark International Women’s Day, WHO is today launching a new Global Breast Cancer Initiative, to reduce mortality from breast cancer by 2.5% every year until 2040, saving 2.5 million lives.

Breast cancer has now overtaken lung cancer as the world’s most-diagnosed cancer.

Survival five years after diagnosis now exceeds 80% in most high-income countries, but survival rates are much lower in lower-income countries. There is much we can do to save these women’s lives.

And finally finally, as you know, our work at WHO would not be possible without our own incredible women, including those you see here today – Ana Maria, Kate, Maria, Mariângela, Soumya, and Sylvie – and thousands of others you don’t see all over the world.

To all of our women colleagues, I want to say thank you for everything you do every day to promote health, keep the world safe and serve the vulnerable.

Christian, back to you. 

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