From COVID-19 to Climate Change, UN General Assembly Considers Multiple Global Health Catastrophes
Non-Violence, also known as The Knotted Gun, is a bronze sculpture by Swedish artist Carl Fredrik Reuterswärd at the United Nations Headquarters in New York.

The 76th session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) opens today (Tuesday 14 September). The UN’s roots lie in determination that the horrors of World War II – millions of lives lost, economic devastation and genocide – should never happen again. 

This year’s General Assembly session is considering multiple global catastrophes, from climate change to the COVID-19 pandemic to growing political instability exacerbated and highlighted by the inequitable burdens of the pandemic. For each, we must consider important technical responses, but we will fail across all of them if we cannot strengthen global cooperation and multilateralism.

The official death toll of COVID-19 has climbed to 4.5 million, and the true toll is much larger, perhaps as high as 15 million lives lost. It’s a stunning indictment of decades of underinvestment in global health security and pandemic preparedness. Without significant progress, we will not only be unable to address COVID-19 sufficiently, we will also be left vulnerable to future threats that experts predict will happen more and more frequently.

The UN system exists because we need global cooperation to forestall disaster and create enduring prosperity by promoting peace and security, fostering strong bonds among nations, and promoting social progress, better living standards and human rights.

We are far from the founding threat and horrors of World War II, but global leaders must rekindle that determination to rise above national interests and face our 21st-century disasters together. 

Strengthening WHO

The World Health Organization (WHO) is the first line of defense against global health emergencies. The General Assembly has to provide greater momentum to the movement to give WHO more authority, independence and resources to quickly address emerging threats, and support its role of strengthening national health systems to prevent illness and deal with shocks. 

The WHO-endorsed idea of a Health Threats Council, to keep countries accountable and committed to working collectively on infectious threats, has merit.

Funds to address global preparedness have already fallen short of pledges; the G20, an intergovernmental forum of 19 countries and the European Union, has not lived up to its commitment of providing $75 billion in international public funding to address gaps in pandemic prevention. 

The General Assembly session will undoubtedly provide a platform for many global leaders to make more pledges, but we must demand action. We will hold our applause for those who make concrete investments.

Until global vaccination rates are high, the virus will continue to circulate, and rapidly evolve new strains that threaten us all. The world’s richest nations have a 1.2 billion dose surplus, while other countries are receiving trickles. Africa’s vaccination rate hovers around 3%.

The assembly must push to operationalize the Access to COVID-19 tools (ACT) Accelerator and its COVAX Facility to its full capacity. 

Set up by WHO to guarantee fair and equitable access for countries through securing commitments from countries with access to vaccines to support those without, true support among rich countries for this effort has been anemic. 

Fewer than 15% of pledges to support COVAX are in place. 

Supporting greater vaccine equity must go beyond a charity model. The UN must generate enough pressure to drive technology transfer from few countries to many. In South Africa, a facility capable of making millions of vaccines lies dormant, and as intellectual property debates of this public good are dragged out, millions of people are dying of COVID-19.

Corporate influence

Addressing the power of corporate interests also lies at the heart of the UN Food Systems Summit, being held alongside the General Assembly meeting. 

The Summit will advance an agenda of promoting access to healthy foods, curbing unhealthy ultra-processed products, and protecting the rights of local farmers and indigenous people. 

This agenda is in peril. We join with the activists who are raising the alarm that global agro-industry and food corporations have too much influence over the agenda and that profits will win out over people. 

We must wrest control of food systems away from profit-driven corporations and return it to local food producers and communities. At both the General Assembly session and the Food Summit, we expect to see the voices of civil society, local food providers and indigenous people elevated. 

This will be essential to reducing the impact of non-communicable diseases, such as heart disease, cancer, and diabetes, which kill 41 million people each year and account for 71% of all deaths globally.

At Vital Strategies, we are working to reimagine public health as central to a sustainable world. Reimagining public health means putting the health agenda at the heart of our civic, social and commercial lives and building a global agenda where cooperation to improve the lives of billions is prioritized. 

Global governance and a UN. General Assembly that builds cooperative action are central to a world where everyone, everywhere can reach the full potential of a long and healthy life.

José Luis Castro is president and CEO at Vital Strategies








Image Credits: Matthew TenBruggencate/ Unsplash.

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