Conflicts and Health Emergencies Overshadow WHO Successes as Executive Board Gets Underway
Dr Tedros opens the WHO executive board meeting.

Supporting 100 million tobacco users to quit, increasing exclusive breastfeeding for babies under six months to 48% globally, and helping 63 countries to build climate-resilient health systems are some of the recent successes of the World Health Organization (WHO), said Director General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

Addressing the opening of the WHO’s executive board (EB) meeting on Monday, Tedros said that the global body was focused on “promoting, providing, protecting, powering and performing for health”.

The 152nd session of the Executive Board, which runs until 7 February, has a very heavy agenda – ranging from a series of initiatives to improve global emergency response to an updated menu of WHO-recommended “best buys” to fight non-communicable diseases. The EB’s approval of draft resolutions and decisions is a prerequisite to bringing most proposals before the World Health Assembly (WHA) in May.  The EB also plays a watchdog role, vis a vis the 9000-member WHO’s finance and budet planning, advising on strategic directions for the global body’s work.

Protecting health during conflicts and humanitarian crises constituted a huge part of the WHO’s work in 2022 as it responded to 72 graded emergencies last year, “including three public health emergencies of international concern, outbreaks of Ebola and cholera, conflicts in Ethiopia, Syria, Ukraine and Yemen, and humanitarian crises in the greater Horn of Africa, the Sahel and much more”, said Tedros. 

“Thanks to the generosity of donors to the Contingency Fund for Emergencies, we were able to release more than $87 million immediately to support rapid response, and we delivered essential health supplies to 90 countries from our Dubai logistics hub in the United Arab Emirates,” said Tedros.

Africa demands an increase in country allocations

However, in reaction to the speech, Botswana for African Union called on the WHO to strengthen the African region, and particularly strengthen the region’s WHO country offices, which are historically under-resourced and staffed, so that they can better support national ministries responding to health crises.

“We call on the WHO to enhance capacity at the regional and national levels in order to accelerate progress. Currently, the regional office needs both technical and financial support in order to effectively address and support country needs,” said Botswana.

While for the first time, over one-half of WHO’s 2024-25 budget has been earmarked for country offices, Botswana called for this to be increased to 75% to “address the budget and funding imbalances”, declaring that this was “a precondition for the increase in assessed contributions” from member states.

For many member states’ reacting to Tedros’s speech, Russia’s war in Ukraine loomed large as a huge impediment to global well-being.

Demark condemns Russia’s aggression in Ukraine.

Russia’s war in Ukraine

Denmark, representing the 27 European Union member states and seven aligned countries, said that “nearly 750 attacks on health care have been verified in Ukraine” while the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has reported a total of 17,023 casualties in Ukraine”. 

“Russia’s military aggression has triggered energy and food supply challenges, exacerbating existing food system vulnerabilities that have already been weakened by the effect of climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic. The huge impact of conflict on health and well being of people and societies is the case in all ongoing conflicts across the world.”

Canada, the US, the UK and Japan also condemned Russian aggression and its impact on the people of Ukraine and food security.

However, in response, Russia warned that “the politicisation of the WHO agenda is unacceptable and this will simply lead to increased inequality and a deterioration of the situation in developing states”.

US warning on sexual and reproductive rights

US assistant secretary of state for global public affairs Loyce Pace

Meanwhile, both the US and Brazil indicated that they would oppose any attacks on sexual and reproductive health and rights.

Loyce Pace, US assistant secretary of state for global public affairs, said that the US “prioritises efforts to promote universal health coverage through strengthening primary health care and protecting people from catastrophic spending”.

In addition, said Pace, US is focused on “ensuring the health and rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersex individuals and communities because we will not accept intolerance or discrimination of any people. We look forward to the EB’s discussions in this area”.

Last year’s World Health Assembly stalled for hours over the inclusion of phrases such as men who have sex with men in a technical document on HIV, facing significant opposition from countries form the Mediterranean and North Africa (MENA) region of WHO.

Brazil backed the US, saying that it too will “work with all the partners to improve the respect for human rights, in particular when it comes to gender and racial equality, sexual and reproductive health and rights”.

“We will fight discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity and promote the rights of people with disabilities and indigenous peoples. In this regard, I would like to announce our intention to put forward the resolution on the health of indigenous peoples a topic never addressed directly before by the World Health Assembly with the objective of ensuring the right to health according to their own requirements and under their own administration,” said Brazil’s representative.

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