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As conflict, climate change and Covid rage, WHO launches peace ...

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As conflict, climate change and Covid rage, WHO launches peace initiative

The organisation’s ‘Peace for Health and Health for Peace’ project aims to foster new dialogue around the two

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus
Hassan Merzam Muhammad lies on a bed at his family's hut in Hajjah province, Yemen. This picture was taken on November 23 2020.
WHAT STARVATION LOOKS LIKE Hassan Merzam Muhammad lies on a bed at his family's hut in Hajjah province, Yemen. This picture was taken on November 23 2020.
Image: Eissa Alragehi/Reuters

Last week I learnt from Jarno Habicht, the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) Ukraine representative, about the high cost the Russian invasion is having on Ukrainian people, the damage caused to hospitals, and the mental and physical impact the war is having on health workers and civilians.

But tragically, Ukraine is not the only emergency the world is facing. In Afghanistan people are selling their kidneys and children to survive. In Tigray one of the longest and worst blockades in history has largely shut off deliveries of food, fuel and medicines, and the region is facing a humanitarian calamity which includes mass starvation. A worsening climate crisis is leading to countries being hit by multiple climatic catastrophes simultaneously. In the same week last month Australia’s coral reefs bleached as other parts of the country dealt with “cataclysmic floods”. And the pandemic persists with record cases and deaths being recorded in some Asian countries and intense transmission of Omicron (variant BA.1 followed by BA.2) around the world continuing to put substantial pressure on health systems.

Rising conflict, the worsening climate situation and prolonged pandemic collectively have led to the Doomsday Clock becoming stuck at 100 seconds to midnight, which remains the closest the world has been to a civilisation-ending apocalypse since its creation in 1947. It’s easy to feel despair, but there are things we can do at micro and macro levels to make a difference.

To prevent the multidimensional crises from turning into a death spiral for humanity there need to be concerted and creative efforts to bend the arc of history towards a solutions orientated, healthier and sustainable world. The vast majority wants to live in a world free of war, where they and their families can access good work, put food on the table and have access to essential health services and quality schooling.

War has relegated our struggles against a heating world and the Covid-19 pandemic to something of a back-burner, but both need international cooperation to move forward.

While it is relatively easy to kick off a conflict, the search for peace is often elusive, as wars have a habit of spiralling, leading to unforeseen escalations and negative consequences. Peace underpins all that is good in our societies. We need peace for health and health for peace. For health workers, WHO staff and our humanitarian partners on the ground, war makes everything exponentially harder, sometimes even impossible.

Recognising that peace is foundational to our work on health, development and tackling conflict, the climate crisis and Covid-19, I am announcing a new “Peace for Health and Health for Peace” global initiative. It aims first and foremost to foster new dialogue around health and peace. For example, the creation of humanitarian corridors so people can access basics, including nutritious food, fuel and health services, and that no healthcare facilities be targeted militarily, a disturbing new trend in conflict. I will be asking other UN agencies, civil society, sport organisations, academia and business to get behind this initiative, which I ultimately envisage will be part of an overall peace-building effort that helps those at highest risk of disease and death. 

The highly progressive Millennium Declaration, developed at the turn of the century, outlined the nexus between peace, security, development and health. War has relegated our struggles against a heating world and the Covid-19 pandemic to something of a back-burner, but both need international cooperation to move forward. And even in a highly divided world, progress is possible. For example, at the height of the Cold War the US and USSR worked together to achieve smallpox eradication, which remains one of the great scientific achievements of our time and provides lessons for the other existential challenges.

While war now dominates the attention of decisionmakers and the media, the pandemic is by no means over. The WHO recognises the ongoing threat of Covid-19 and is working with countries to track the virus and ensure all opportunities to boost the immunity of populations are taken. The North Star goal of vaccinating 70% of the global population is eminently doable and I’m pleased to see countries including Vietnam, Pakistan and Nigeria reflecting that progress is possible if resources and efforts are effectively targeted.

As part of any peace initiative it is critical that ensuring access to quality and nutritious food is a basic requirement, alongside other fundamental amenities, such as health and education.

Simultaneously, it is important to strengthen health systems so countries can catch up on the many health issues that have seen progress backslide, while also preparing them for future variants of concern and potential new pandemics. While rich countries are rolling out “second boosters” — fourth doses effectively — it is incompetent and/or negligent that a few groups in those same countries are suggesting that vaccinating to similar standards is not worth it. After all, the pandemic and the resulting challenges related to supply chain chaos remain a threat not just to health, but also peace and security.

Similarly the climate crisis probably remains the largest and most complex existential challenge of our time that needs unparalleled action. A heating world in general is bad for health, with 7-million people dying every year from air pollution. This week the WHO released updated air pollution guidance, which highlights that more than 110 countries are now monitoring the air their citizens breath. It’s a good sign that countries are investing in this technology, but the amount of pollutants in the air reveals the need for a transformative move away from fossil fuels, which for humanity’s survival must remain in the ground. With exponentially increasing fuel prices, leaders have a perfect opportunity to move rapidly towards renewable energy.

There are lessons from the pandemic on how scientific innovation can save lives and protect health systems, but only if everyone has access. This can transcend into the climate space because it’s important to make plans now so game-changing technology and know-how are shared effectively to help avert global calamity.

Conflict, the climate crisis and Covid-19 are contributing to huge spikes in food and fuel prices, as well as inflation, which for many keeps health out of reach. In the Horn of Africa and parts of the Sahel famine is potentially on the horizon. As part of any peace initiative it is critical that ensuring access to quality and nutritious food is a basic requirement, alongside other fundamental amenities, such as health and education. Whatever the crisis, I’m proud the WHO is always on the front lines fighting to save lives and working towards health for everyone, everywhere. 

Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus is director-general of the World Health Organisation.

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