Photo: World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus speaks at the 73rd World Health Assembly (WHA) at the WHO headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, May 18, 2020. /WHO
The world must be united and the irreplaceable World Health Organization (WHO) should play a stronger role in the fight against the COVID-19 crisis, said world leaders at the first-ever virtual session of the World Health Assembly (WHA) that opened on Monday.
"COVID-19 must be a wake-up call," said United Nations (UN) Secretary-General Antonio Guterres when opening the 73rd session of the WHA focusing on the pandemic that has infected over 4.5 million people and taken away more than 300,000 lives globally in a matter of months.
"We have seen some solidarity, but very little unity, in our response to COVID-19," deplored the UN secretary-general.
"Many countries have ignored the recommendations of the World Health Organization," he said. "Consequently, the virus has spread across the world."
Guterres reiterated the UN's call for a coordinated large-scale response led by the WHO with an emphasis on solidarity with developing countries and vulnerable people.
"Unless we control the spread of the virus, the economy will never recover," the secretary-general said. "We must massively increase the resources available to the developing world."
Simonetta Sommaruga, President of the Swiss Confederation that hosts the WHO's headquarters, thanked the WHO for its tireless commitment to tackle the pandemic.
"Director general (Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus), as you go through this crisis, be assured that you have Switzerland's full support and cooperation," she said.
"Our support to you is based on our commitment to multilateralism, solidarity and international cooperation," added the Swiss president. "Today, more than ever, these things are absolutely essential and they need to be strengthened."
Calling for more funding for the WHO, she said the organization, which has always managed to learn lessons from the epidemics that it had to deal with, will also be able to carry out a thorough review of the current crisis in order to improve its future emergency management.
French President Emmanuel Macron also stressed the need for more funding for the global health body, which he said plays an "irreplaceable role" in coordinating action thanks to its scientific expertise and knowledge of the situation on the ground.
Calling the assembly "one of the most important assemblies in the history of the WHO," Macron said that this must be a moment of unity and solidarity, and also a moment of clear thought and effective action.
He urged all stakeholders, including states, organizations, funds, pharmaceutical companies or ordinary citizens, to cooperate with the WHO.
The French president hailed the "Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator" (ACT) initiative, which is an international cooperation project launched by the WHO in April to speed up the development, production and equitable distribution of new tools, treatments and a vaccine, in particular, to combat COVID-19.
"If we deliver a vaccine against COVID-19, it will be a global public good, and everyone must have access to it," said Macron.
"No country can save itself alone. We must work together," said German Chancellor Angela Merkel. "COVID-19 shows that we need to do more in prevention and research."
"The WHO is a legitimate world organization in the area of health. We should continue to work to improve the procedures within the WHO," she said. "We should also look into its financing to ensure that it is sustainable."
Moon Jae-in, president of the Republic of Korea, said his country will provide 100 million U.S. dollars in humanitarian aid this year and will continue to share its experiences in fighting epidemics with the international community.
Affirming full support for the WHO, Barbados Prime Minister Mia Amor Mottley called for attention to the debt pressure on vulnerable nations, such as the Caribbean states, which has been worsened by the economic fallout of the pandemic.
Stressing the WHO's key role in leading the global fight against the pandemic, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, chairperson of the African Union, called for more assistance, debt relief and medical supplies in particular, for the developing countries.
"Africa, extremely vulnerable to the ravages of this virus, needs every possible support and assistance," Ramaphosa told the virtual assembly.
"The African Union has made a call for the developing countries to be assisted in their efforts to combat the pandemic and to rebuild their economies. This assistance needs to include debt relief. It also needs to include assistance with regard to diagnostic and therapeutic medical supplies," he said.
The WHA is the decision-making body of the WHO. The 73rd session of the WHA, scheduled from Monday to Tuesday, is held via video link due to the impact of the current pandemic.
According to the WHO, its agenda was condensed only to essential issues, such as COVID-19 and the executive board members' selection.