The Pandemic Will End – But Tuberculosis, Tobacco and Air Pollution Will Continue To Steal Our Global Breath – Unless We Reimagine The Future

The COVID-19 pandemic will end at some point. But TB, tobacco use, air pollution and other lung diseases will continue to “steal the breath and life of millions of people every year”, unless we reimagine the future, said WHO’s director-general Dr Tedros Adhanon Ghebreyesus, appearing at the opening of the 51st Union World Conference On Lung Health in an all-start lineup with former US President Bill Clinton and Crown Princess Akishino of Japan .

“COVID-19 is reminding us all that life is fragile, and health is the most precious commodity on Earth. Together, we must harness the same urgency and solidarity with which the world is fighting COVID-19 to make sure everyone everyone can breathe freely and cleanly,” he said.

Bill Clinton, former US President

As COVID-19 shatters livelihoods, cripples economies and claims the lives of over a million people, the conference comes at an “important time” to redefine the future of the planet, said Clinton, another keynote speaker at The Union’s 100th anniversary event.

It was exactly a century ago that the Paris-based organization was founded in 1920 to end all suffering from tuberculosis (TB) and other lung diseases. Even today, despite the progress made since, TB remains the world’s largest infectious disease killer, claiming 4,000 lives a day.

“This crisis also gives us a chance to totally reimagine what our future will look like, what our societies, our economies and our healthcare systems [will] look like and how we relate to one another,” Clinton said Tuesday, at the weeklong event. Despite being on a virtual platform, this year’s conference features speakers from 82 countries around the world. 

“The path to an optimal post-COVID world is unlikely to be simple and quick. But we cannot simply revert to the status quo,” Clinton said.

The Union’s executive director José Luis Castro`

On a positive note, the world still has the capacity to deliver the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030 despite the pandemic, emphasized The Union’s executive director José Luis Castro. Achieving SDG targets in time is especially feasible for TB, which is still the leading cause of death worldwide, even though it is preventable, treatable and curable. According to Castro, the SDGs are not ideas, but commitments world leaders must uphold “no matter what”. 

“Today, we have more knowledge, more technology, more resources and more connectivity than humanity has had at any other time in history,” said Castro. “We have the power to see that the Sustainable Development Goals are not just good ideas that get put aside when a crisis arises. But that these are commitments that we have made to each other, no matter what. It is up to us.”

Now is not the time to slow down, added Shannon Hadder, deputy executive director of UNAIDS, in her call for more aggressive investments in preventive therapy, infection control, health worker safety, scaled and modern contact tracing, and sufficient social and economic support to achieve it.

Given that HIV is the leading cause of death in TB patients, testing for TB in HIV patients and maintaining HIV treatment is particularly important, said Hadder. Even before COVID-19, 50% of TB cases in HIV-positive people were under the radar, she said, adding that a mere six month interruption in HIV treatment could trigger half a million additional TB deaths in Sub-Saharan Africa alone.

Building Back Better – Governments Must Foster Honesty & Integrity  

Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director-general

Apart from transforming health care towards a more inclusive, affordable and equitable model, heads of state must restore their citizens’ trust through honesty, integrity and evidence-based decision-making, said Dr. Tedros. 

Fostering trust in the general public seems quite urgent given that almost 30% of the world is unlikely to accept a coronavirus vaccine – even if it were proven to be safe and effective – concluded a Nature survey just this Tuesday. The survey was based on responses from over 13,000 randomly selected adults across 19 countries that were heavily affected by COVID-19.

Governments must also be held accountable for the decisions they make, added Castro, noting that by March 2021, world leaders will only have two years left to deliver their pledge to ensure that 30 million people have access to TB treatment. According to Castro, there is still time to turn these promises into reality. 

“We cannot allow the pandemic to become an excuse for failing to deliver on the commitments we have made to end tobacco and air pollution,” added Dr Tedros. “Quite the opposite. The pandemic is showing us why we must work with even more determination, collaboration and innovation to meet those commitments.”

Image Credits: The Union.

Combat the infodemic in health information and support health policy reporting from the global South. Our growing network of journalists in Africa, Asia, Geneva and New York connect the dots between regional realities and the big global debates, with evidence-based, open access news and analysis. To make a personal or organisational contribution click here on PayPal.