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A Global Health Expert Discusses Covid-19 And The Challenges Ahead, As UN Convenes General Assembly

Dr. Vanessa Kerry, cofounder and CEO of Seed Global Health, explains why the world needs cooperative approaches to solving the coronavirus pandemic rather than isolated short-term fixes.


As world leaders gather virtually this week to commemorate the 75th year since the establishment of the United Nations, this moment in history is unique—in both opportunity and peril. While not mired in a world war, the spirit of the UN’s preamble —“to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind”—is still remarkably relevant. At the UN General Assembly this year, the world unites not in the wake of a world war, but in this context of enormous threat to human life in the form of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Since the establishment of the UN, the global community has never faced a set of threats so existential to global order or humanity’s future. At baseline, the global community faces myriad challenges that defy national boundaries. The global phenomena of climate change, growing economic and social inequities, and political upheaval, have shown us that although progress has been made, we have not yet created the fundamental changes needed to sustain social progress on a global scale. These challenges are only exacerbated as we confront an unprecedented global pandemic demanding unity for a global solution. Covid-19 has irrefutably heightened these ongoing struggles in politics, global health, economic, national, and individual security.

Covid-19 has also highlighted that health is fundamental to all aspects of life. Ironically, it was one year ago that UN member nations appeared to nod in this direction with every nation signing with the high-level Political Declaration for Universal Health Care at last year’s General Assembly. Universal health care is an essential investment to address Covid-19 or any number of health challenges that undermine our wellbeing.

As the world has responded to Covid-19, the paucity and inequities of health resources have become abundantly clear.

However, today, even as we promote universal health care alongside the Sustainable Development Goals, many countries’ health systems face uncertain paths to meet even their current population needs, much less to achieve universal coverage. Although considerable gains in health have been made over the last 75 years, 90% of all maternal deaths and 80% of stillbirths still occur in just 58 countries. These same countries employ only 17 percent of the world’s midwives and physicians. Due to severe global shortages in healthcare workers, 48 million women give birth each year without a skilled health worker present and 6.9 million children under 5 die from treatable and preventable diseases.

More recently, as the world has responded to Covid-19, the paucity and inequities of health resources have become abundantly clear. In critical physical infrastructure, 41 African countries combined house fewer than 2,000 respiratory ventilators, while the United States has more than 120,000. And with promising Covid-19 vaccines on the horizon, wealthy nations, representing just 13 percent of the world’s population, have already cornered more than half of the promised doses of leading Covid-19 vaccine candidates. Human resources—the frontline of the pandemic response—face critical shortages in 83 countries and are profoundly vulnerable in the face of the pandemic. For the majority of the world’s population—in low and high-income countries, access to quality health care remains out of reach.

Given the challenges we face today, compounded by the rising levels of poverty, gender inequity, and food insecurity due to Covid-19, we must take a different approach. The race to expand technology and personal protective equipment alone cannot solve problems that rely on human investment and collaboration; vaccines alone cannot bridge the fracture lines already present in fragile health systems; and nationalism and isolationism driving scare resource competition are incompatible with the global threat of the current pandemic as none of us are safe until everyone is safe.

We must unite in a commitment to shared global good with the belief that generation-defining social progress can happen when the public, private, and nonprofit sectors collaborate in new ways with shared goals, principles and understanding that what is at stake will take a new way of working. We call on all of us to re-evaluate how we engage—and thus how we survive.

The truth—whether we choose to see it or not—is that humanity, our future generations, and our individual and collective wellbeing are global in nature. Each country, company, vaccine, and technology must contribute but none can address today’s challenges alone. We can no longer afford isolated approaches, short-term fixes, or blind faith that the marketplace will address the world’s pressing ills. We must steward our future responsibly, come together and demand cooperative, multilateral, systems-level change that benefits not some nations, but all people.

This moment cannot be squandered. Our very survival depends on it.

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