The 2020 World Health Assembly (WHA) takes place at an unprecedented time in history, amidst the virulent COVID-19 pandemic, the biggest health challenge our society has faced in one hundred years. Normally a physical gathering in Geneva, Switzerland, this year’s meeting of the decision-making body for the World Health Organization (WHO) will take place by video teleconference for the first time in its 73-year history.

Never has the need for WHO, and by extension the WHA, been clearer. With governments of all countries making up WHO’s membership, delegates to WHA will make critical decisions that will guide future response to the pandemic. Member States determine the policies of WHO, elect leaders, and debate important issues that impact the health of all of us. It is one of the only places that brings together the world’s leaders and community voices to discuss and vote on important policy and programmatic issues in order to create a healthier, more prosperous life for everyone, everywhere.

This global crisis is exactly why we have institutions like the UN and WHO—no country can tackle a problem on the scale of a worldwide pandemic alone.

WHO staffer gives iranian medical personell covid-19 equipment
Photo: WHO

Science, Solutions, and Solidarity

On the eve of WHA, WHO is facing a difficult balancing act, leading the global COVID-19 response while also juggling unprecedented scrutiny. ‘Walking a tightrope in the middle of a storm’ is how Suerie Moon, Co-director of the Graduate Institute of Geneva’s Global Health Centre, described it. But despite these issues, the vital work of WHO must continue. As Jane Ellison, WHO’s Executive Director, External Relations & Governance said in the World Health Assembly Open Briefing, “WHO’s strong public voice based on science and evidence is never more needed than now.”

Right now, WHO is playing a uniquely important role, reflecting its singular mandate and scope, to:

  • Help vulnerable countries and communities cope with the pandemic.
  • Ensure everyone, everywhere has the critical technical information they need to protect themselves and respond to COVID-19;
  • Coordinate research and development efforts on a global scale for tools to prevent, diagnose, and treat COVID-19;
  • Lead the UN’s Supply Chain Task Force, which is coordinating the purchase and distribution of life-saving protective equipment and medical supplies like masks, gowns, gloves, testing supplies, and respirators to 133 countries around the world; and
  • Keep equitable access at the heart of all efforts to ensure no one is left behind while dealing with this global health crisis.

Through the COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund, WHO has been able to get funding quickly to where its critically needed and lay vital groundwork to kickstart global coordination of R&D against COVID-19, supply essential equipment to frontline health workers around the world, and support the most vulnerable countries. Only WHO can do – and is doing – this kind of global coordination to fight COVID-19 in almost every country around the world.

And while leading the global pandemic crisis response, it is also ensuring people everywhere can still get the essential health services they need, often innovating and modifying to fit the circumstances. An estimated 70% of all essential health services are continuing, even as WHO is working on solutions to a pandemic—despite being underfunded on both fronts. These services include getting critical supplies and medications like bed nets and antimalarials to prevent and treat malaria; HIV testing and antiretroviral medications which are vital to slow transmission of HIV/AIDS and keep HIV-positive populations healthy; and ensuring women have access to family planning services.

While house-to-house immunization campaigns have been paused due to physical distancing guidelines, facility-based vaccination as well as community education and sensitization activities still continue. These efforts will be vital for when house-to-house campaigns for polio, measles, and other vaccine preventable diseases can resume.

WHA Sign
Photo: WHO

What’s ahead at WHA 73

When delegates to this year’s WHA connect virtually, they will focus on important procedural issues as well as pandemic response. Opening with a public address by WHO Director-General, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, a shorter Assembly will consist of just two sessions. In the first delegates will elect officials and Executive Board Members—the people critical to making future decisions about the direction of WHO’s response and function. The second session will be specific to COVID-19, where a resolution on the COVID-19 response is expected.  Other issues expected to be taken up by the Assembly, like a new global plan for immunization, are among the topics deferred to a later date.

There will undoubtedly be lessons learned and reforms made after we evaluate WHO’s response to COVID-19, just as we did from reviews of previous epidemics and outbreaks like Ebola, SARS, and H1N1, which are now informing the current response. Bringing all nations together to debate and decide how to keep everyone everywhere safe from both routine and emerging health threats is another reason why convenings like WHA are so important. Now is the time for Member States to continue to stand with WHO’s leaders and support the undeniably pivotal role WHO is playing in this pandemic—swiftly responding to a global emergency while also continuing to fulfill its larger mandate to promote health, keep the world safe, and serve the world’s most vulnerable.

Global problems cannot be solved without global cooperation. WHO is imperative to leading that cooperation to help protect the vulnerable, and ultimately, save lives.

Featured Photo: Tom Page