WHO Director-General’s opening remarks at the media briefing on COVID-19 – 8 May 2020

Good morning, good afternoon and good evening.

Exactly 40 years ago today, on the 8th of May 1980, the World Health Assembly officially declared that “the world and all its peoples have won freedom from smallpox”.

Smallpox is the first and, to date, the only human disease to be eradicated globally.

Until it was wiped out, smallpox had plagued humanity for at least 3000 years, killing 300 million people in the 20th century alone.

Its eradication stands as the greatest public health triumph in history.

As the world confronts the COVID-19 pandemic, humanity’s victory over smallpox is a reminder of what is possible when nations come together to fight a common health threat.

Many of the basic public health tools that were used successfully then are the same tools that have been used to respond to Ebola, and to COVID-19: disease surveillance, case finding, contact tracing, and mass communication campaigns to inform affected populations.

The smallpox eradication campaign had one crucial tool that we don’t have for COVID-19 yet: a vaccine; in fact, the world’s first vaccine.

As you know, WHO is now working with many partners to accelerate the development of a vaccine for COVID-19, which will be an essential tool for controlling transmission of the virus.

But although a vaccine was crucial for ending smallpox, it was not enough on its own.

After all, the vaccine was first developed by Edward Jenner in 1796. It took another 184 years for smallpox to be eradicated.

The decisive factor in the victory over smallpox was global solidarity.

At the height of the Cold War, the Soviet Union and the United States of America joined forces to conquer a common enemy.

They recognized that viruses do not respect nations or ideologies.

That same solidarity, built on national unity, is needed now more than ever to defeat COVID-19.

Stories like the eradication of smallpox have incredible power to inspire.

But there are many more untold stories about health around the world.

Next Tuesday, the 12th of May, WHO will announce the five winners of our inaugural Health for All Film Festival.

The winning films were chosen by a distinguished panel of jurors from almost 1300 entries from 110 countries.

The short-listed films can be seen on WHO’s YouTube channel, and we invite everyone to join us on our social media channels next Tuesday, for the announcement of the winners.

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Yesterday, I announced the resources WHO estimates it needs to deliver our updated Strategic Preparedness and Response Plan for COVID-19.

The updated plan estimates that WHO requires US$1.7 billion to respond to COVID-19, across the three levels of the organization, between now and the end of 2020.

This estimate includes the funds that WHO has already received to date, leaving WHO’s COVID-19 response with a funding gap of US$1.3 billion for 2020.

To be clear, this estimate only covers WHO’s needs, not the entire global need.

WHO is deeply grateful to the countries and donors who responded to WHO’s initial Strategic Preparedness and Response Plan, and to the hundreds of thousands of individuals, corporations and foundations who have contributed to the COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund – we thank you so much for your commitment and support.

Our updated strategic plan takes into account the lessons we have learned so far, strengthening WHO’s role in global and regional coordination.

It is built on five strategic objectives:

First, to mobilize all sectors and communities;

Second, to control sporadic cases and clusters by rapidly finding and isolating all cases;

Third, to suppress community transmission through infection prevention and control and physical distancing;

Fourth, to reduce mortality through appropriate care;

And fifth, to develop safe and effective vaccines and therapeutics.

To support these objectives, WHO will continue to provide technical, operational and logistics support to countries, and we will continue to update and adapt our guidance according to local needs.

In certain fragile settings and countries with weaker health systems, WHO will continue its operational work as a provider of essential health services.

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As we reflect today on the eradication of smallpox, we’re reminded of what is possible when nations come together to confront a common foe, to confront a common enemy.

The legacy of smallpox was not only the eradication of one disease; it was the demonstration that when the world unites, anything is possible. If there is a will, there is a way.

It gave us the confidence to pursue the eradication of other diseases like polio and Guinea worm.

Like smallpox, COVID-19 is a defining challenge for public health.

Like smallpox, it’s a test of global solidarity.

Like smallpox, COVID-19 is giving us an opportunity not only to fight a single disease, but to change the trajectory of global health, and to build a healthier, safer, fairer world for everyone – to achieve universal health coverage, to achieve our dream from the establishment of WHO in the 1940s: Health for All.

Thank you.

Before we move on to questions, I’d like to mention one small way we are commemorating the eradication of smallpox.

When WHO’s smallpox eradication campaign was launched in 1967, one of the ways countries raised awareness about smallpox was through postage stamps – when social media like Twitter and Facebook was not even on the horizon.

To commemorate the 40th Anniversary of smallpox eradication, the United Nations Postal Administration and WHO are releasing a commemorative postage stamp to recognize global solidarity in fighting smallpox.

I especially want to thank my friend Mr Atul Khare, United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Operational Support, for making this commemorative stamp possible.

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