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Global health security relies on coordinated political leadership at the highest levels

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Gro Harlem Brundtland delivering her speech at a reception marking the World Health Organization’s 75th anniversary. Photo: WHO/Pierre Albouy
At the 75th anniversary of the World Health Organization, Gro Harlem Brundtland reiterated The Elders' priorities for ensuring pandemic prevention, preparedness and response and strengthening global health security.

Read Gro Harlem Brundtland's speech

It is an honour to celebrate this remarkable milestone. Serving as DG was one of the privileges of my career.

I was 9 when WHO was established. In 1974, my time as a public servant began. International tensions were high. But health was above politics, best illustrated by the Soviet Union and the USA collaborating with WHO to eradicate smallpox by 1980.

When I became DG in 1998, trust in WHO had been eroded. The strong mandate WHO has from its constitution needs to be continuously earned.

I established the first specialised unit applying scientific evidence to policy making. This has helped enshrine WHO as the global leader on evidence-based health policy.

The adoption of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control came in 2003 after we strengthened the evidence base for tobacco as a killer, determined the most effective actions, and uncovered how tobacco companies had infiltrated ministries of health.

The WHO constitution is clear health can only be tackled by engaging other sectors. As DG, I encouraged partnerships with many other actors. Close collaboration with UN Secretary General Kofi Annan led to creating the Global Fund and the MDGs.

The turn of the millennium was a fortunate time. We were building evidence that health care was not an expense but an investment. I launched an independent commission to assess the evidence. After its report was published in 2001, investments in health grew rapidly.

When SARS hit in 2003 we benefited from the fundamental principles of the WHO constitution: integrity, values, equity and scientific evidence. We had worked hard to unify the organisation and prioritise. This helped us stand up to governments reluctant to act, faced with a dangerous outbreak.

My public engagement today is as a member of The Elders, the group of independent global leaders founded by Nelson Mandela. Many of you will know of our work to promote UHC. We have now turned to pandemic prevention, preparedness and response.

Since SARS, there has been a new global health threat every few years, including swine flu, MERS and Ebola.

Only two months before COVID-19 struck, the Global Preparedness Monitoring Board warned about a serious respiratory virus. Yet, the cycle of panic and neglect continues.

Even after the enormous impacts of COVID-19, we still do not see the determination from leaders to make the necessary investments to prevent or curtail a future pandemic.

We need coordinated political leadership at the highest levels, national preparedness plans, new financing, a more authoritative WHO, and access for people everywhere to tests, vaccines, and treatments.

I end by offering three priorities for strengthening global health security.

Firstly, we need a global body at the highest level to recommend actions and resources. That is why The Elders so strongly support the establishment of a Global Health Threats Council.

Secondly, WHO must be strengthened, including through increased assessed contributions. We need an authoritative WHO. I observe geopolitics sometimes weaken WHO’s actions. We must not undermine the DG’s authority, or delay critical action.

Finally, WHO must be the centre of excellence on global health. It must champion science and evidence to make sound policy recommendations.

In celebrating this 75th anniversary, we should also recommit to the values of multilateralism. Multilateralism is fundamentally about global human solidarity. I hope this spirit will guide WHO for the next 75 years and beyond!

Thank you.

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