The multilateral health system must be strengthened with the UN at its core
This speech was delivered on 29 January 2022 as part of the closing session of the Prince Mahidol Award Conference 2022.
Dear Dr. McKimm, distinguished guests at PMAC 2022, ladies and gentlemen,
It is a pleasure to join you tonight for this closing “armchair conversation” session of the 2022 Price Mahidol Award Conference.
I know that the last few days have seen lots of rich debate and discussions around “the world we want”, and how to build a sustainable, fairer and healthier society.
I am speaking to you today in my role as Deputy Chair of The Elders, the group of independent global leaders founded by Nelson Mandela who work for peace, justice and human rights.
I was pleased to see that my fellow Elder Gro Harlem Brundtland, the former Director-General of the World Health Organisation, also addressed this conference earlier this week.
I support her emphasis on the importance of securing Universal Health Coverage within the broader context of the Sustainable Development Goals, as an indispensable step towards tackling not just the pandemic, but the broader challenges of building a sustainable, fairer and healthier society.
COVID-19 has dominated the world for two years now and it is clear that it will have a profound effect on public health, economic growth and social cohesion for many years.
Aside from the devastating death toll, the pandemic has both highlighted and deepened the chasms of inequality between and within nations.
The Elders are particularly concerned at how COVID-19 has exacerbated the marginalisation and vulnerability of women and girls, and their ability to access their rights to justice. In 2021, 47 million more women and girls were pushed into extreme poverty, bringing the total number of women living on US$ 1.90 or less to 435 million.
These figures are a damning indictment of our collective failure to respond to the pressures of the pandemic with solidarity, urgency and commitment to social justice.
This failure is even more stark when we consider the continuing scandal of global vaccine inequity.
It is a moral outrage and public health disaster that whilst the developed countries of the Global North are progressing with booster jabs for double-vaccinated citizens, only 7 people in every 100 in Africa are fully vaccinated.
After two years of a global pandemic, more than 5 million deaths, unprecedented lockdowns and economic, social and educational disruption, our leaders still cannot agree basic principles and policies of fairness, such as agreeing to a TRIPS waiver for vaccine production at the World Trade Organisation.
What does this inertia say about our ability to meet the other existential threats confronting humanity in the coming decade, including the climate crisis and nuclear proliferation?
The challenge here is not one of understanding or insufficient knowledge. Our leaders cannot claim they have not been warned about the dangers ahead or provided with credible, detailed proposals for action.
Look at the recommendations on the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response in relation to COVID-19 and future pandemics, or the scientific data from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Instead, the challenge is to strengthen and improve the multilateral system, with the United Nations at its core, to make it fit for purpose for the 21st century. This requires the world’s leading powers such as China and the United States working together and rejecting the policies of nationalism and unilateralism.
This also means global citizens must work together through democratic institutions and public fora, such as this Conference, to bring pressure to bear on their leaders and hold them accountable for their actions.
Dear friends, this is the task facing us in the years ahead. We now have less than a decade to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, which have the right to health at their heart.
So far, we are dangerously off track to meet this 2030 target, and we need to treat the experience of COVID-19 as a “wake-up call” to spur us into action.
Although this task appears daunting, I remain inspired by the words of Nelson Mandela, the founder of The Elders and a constant fighter for equality and justice: “It always seems impossible until it is done.”