Hamas-Israel War Frames Opening Night of World Health Summit
City of Berlin lights up the Brandenberg Gate in honor of the 75th anniversary of World Health Organization, co-hosting the World Health Summit.

BERLIN – The health and humanitarian crisis triggered by Hamas attacks on Israeli towns and villages a week ago took center stage at the opening of the World Health Summit (WHS) on Sunday evening, drawing sharp remarks by German Health  Minister Karl Lauterbach who denounced the “barbaric” Hamas attacks, 7 October, which led to the deaths of over 1,200 men, women and children and the kidnapping of another more than 150 people. 

“We cannot  look at the world these days without deep dismay,” said Lauterbach, describing the early morning incursion by armed gunmen into some 22 Israeli towns and villages as “inhumane brutality that is deeply shocking.”

“Let me use this opportunity to condemn this barbaric attack, which is in contrast to all we stand for and want to celebrate at this important meeting, which is a defense of human rights,” Lauterbach said. 

WHO Director General – also gravely concerned about Israeli attacks on Palestinian civilians

Speaking remotely from Manila, WHO Director General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus also called on Hamas to release the Israeli hostages.  But he added that he was also “gravely concerned about Israeli attacks on Palestinian civilians” in the pounding Israeli air raids that have followed in response to the initial Hamas attacks and more than a week of constant Hamas missile fire across Israel. Gazan authorities say some 2,750 Palestinians have died in the intense Israeli bombings of the densely populated Gazan enclave

Israel’s recent order to over 1 million Gazans “to move from north to south Gaza in such a short window, creates a humanitarian tragedy,” Tedros said. “The forced evacuation of patients and health workers will further worsen the humanitarian and public health catastrophe.

“WHO calls on Hamas to release civilian hostages, and we continue to appeal to Israel to abide by its obligations under international law to protect civilians and health facilities. We also call for the restoration of electricity and water and to allow the immediate and safe delivery of food, medical supplies, and other humanitarian aid.”

In a tweet Sunday, Israel’s Foreign Ministry retorted:  “@WHO you have the wrong address,” claiming that Hamas was using Gazan health facilities as shields for more attacks against Israel.  

Coming together during conflict and crisis

Karl Lauterbach, Federal Minister for Health, Germany at the opening of the World Health Summit.

WHS, co-sponsored by WHO and the German government is one of the premier events in the global health calendar, drawing thousands of people together from government, multilateral organizations, development banks, civil society, academia, and industry. 

Its packed three day agenda touches on most of the burning issues in the global health world – from the climate crisis to the negotiations over a new WHO pandemic accord that aims to improve global preparedness and response to emerging crises in the wake of the COVID pandemic.  

Every single one of those challenges are laced by geopolitical rivalries and divides that seem only to have grown more acute since the end of the pandemic. 

“We come together at a time of conflict and crisis,” Tedros observed. “And as we all know, this [Gaza-Israel] conflict is only the latest conflict to erupt. 

“In our fractured and divided world. We must continue to seek common ground and common good. The only solution is dialogue, understanding, compassion, and these are exactly the conditions in which WHO was founded 75 years ago, when the nations of the world came together in the wake of …Second World War.”

Climate and ecosystems as another fulcrum point 

World Health Summit President Axel Pries in opening remarks.

“Here at the World Health Summit, we cannot solve political problems,” said WHS President Axel Pries, who laid out the context for the conference in his opening remarks. 

“But ….during the COVID crisis, we used to say no one is safe until everyone is safe. And that is true right now. And it’s more true than ever.

“The ecosystem of the world is in crisis. And this crisis is affecting plants, animals and humans alike. And the challenge to mankind is bigger than anything we face in the past.

“It’s up to us. We as a world wide global health community can give a positive example by working together overcoming this paralysis, and enforce the spirit of international cooperation.”

The boat is on fire 

Ayoade Alakija,World Health Summit moderator, with WHO DIrector General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, speaking from Manila, The Philippines.

A pandemic accord and the climate crisis are amongst the key issues featured at this year’s conference. They rank equally high as priorities for the coming year, said Ayoade Alakija,  WHS moderator and Nigeria’s former chief humanitarian coordinator at the opening night event. 

She recalled attending her very first World Health Summit only two years ago, “and the reason I was coming from Nigeria was because too many people I knew, I had seen die for lack of access to oxygen, lack of access to medical countermeasures.  And we cannot allow that to happen again. 

“Let’s put our differences aside and come together. Let us remember that we’re in the same boat. And as we talk about that boat, that boat is also on fire. 

A witness to sea level rise in the Pacific Islands

“I’m somebody who comes from Africa, but also I’ve spent much of my life living in the Pacific Islands. I have a Fijian daughter and a Fijian husband. Many of the islands that we used to go to when she was a child have completely disappeared.

“To me climate change is not a myth. It is an absolute reality. I remember crouching in the basement of our house during Cyclone Winston, praying that the house would still be there,” she said referring to the 2016 storm that was, at the time, the most intense tropical storm ever to have been recorded in the southern hemisphere. “It was the sound of seven 747 [jets] going on above my head. I’ve never hear anything like it before.  

“We now have dengue in France, we have dengue and malaria in Spain and all of these places.  We need to take action;  we are still in that same boat.”

Midway through the Agenda 2030 for sustainable development

Opening night at World Health Summit, which has some 3,000 registered attendees.

As the world hits the mid-way point on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, global health officials need to reflect on how far the health-related goals of that agenda, including universal health coverage, have progressed, noted Lauterbach. 

“It’s good news that there is way more attention to global health,” Lauterbach said, noting that September’s UN General Assembly meeting saw three high level meetings on health-related topics, UHC, pandemic preparedness and tuberculosis. 

“But we nevertheless have to consider the question are we successful?  Unfortunately, if you look, for example, at one of the topics of the high-level meetings, tuberculosis, we aren’t. 

“We want to eradicate tuberculosis by 2017 and technically, it is quite feasible. But 1.6 million people are still  dying from tuberculosis every year, and we see more resistance against the drugs that we do have. And so if we are not more forceful, we may come to a time when most of our drugs are no longer working. We may lose the golden opportunity that we have in the next seven years. 

Investing in UHC instead of fossil fuels

Similarly, in the case of SDG goal for achieving universal health coverage (UHC), the world will fall well before the goal at the present pace, Lauterbach warned. 

“If we are not faster, we will miss the target by 50% which is a huge margin.”

He added that the world could afford to invest in UHC if just a small proportion of the $US 7 trillion currently invested in harmful fossil fuel subsidies was rechannelled to health. 

“If you take into consideration how much it would take to provide everyone with universal health coverage and compare this with the subsidies for fossil fuels, it would take only 7% of what we spend in terms of subsidies for fossil fuels to eradicate the global health threats,” Lauterbach contended.

“So we are vastly under spending here and this is a threat to our economy. Because if we have more pandemics, we have more global health crises and the economic damage, by far, goes beyond what we ever were supposed to spend [on UHC].” 

WHO pandemic accord negotiations

Lauterbach also expressed concerns that the negotiations over a WHO pandemic accord may not come to their hoped-for conclusion by May 2024, in line with the timeline set by WHO member states at the November 2021 World Health Assembly. 

“Pandemic preparedness, pandemic prevention, which we discussed at the last (2022) Summit, where are we? 

“Well we are still working towards a pandemic agreement. But currently we don’t have it and it is not quite clear whether we will have it by May next year or not. I think it will be a catastrophe from a public health perspective if we will not come up with a pandemic agreement. … and we will be worse protected than we were last time. 

“So this meeting is also an very important forum for us to stress our commonalities, to stress our common goals and to work towards a pandemic agreement.” 

Updated on 16.10.2023 with report of latest Palestinian casualties in Gaza. 

Image Credits: WHO/VIsmita Gupta Smith, E. Fletcher/Health Policy Watch.

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