Earthquakes, conflict and pandemic reinforce the fragility the world faces
By Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus*
Geneva: As the search and rescue in Türkiye and the Syrian Arab Republic was drawing to a close, two further earthquakes on Monday [February 20, 2023] in Türkiye brought more pain to the region. While they were less powerful than the earthquakes earlier in the month, a number of people lost their lives, hundreds were injured, and fear – understandably – swept across the general population.
Currently, the overall death toll from the earthquakes is more than 47,000, and 125,000 have been injured. In Türkiye, at least 15 hospitals have been damaged with many health facilities affected. Across the Syrian Arab Republic, seven hospitals and 145 health facilities have been damaged. Many of these are in the northwest, which has been ravaged by war for more than a decade and is, therefore, more vulnerable to shocks like this.
With 26 million people affected by the earthquake, WHO [World Health Organization] launched a flash appeal for US$ 84.5 million to support the immediate health response efforts in both countries. WHO calls on the global community to support the response and provide hope to those who are grieving, traumatized and fearful about the future.
Earthquakes, conflict and the ongoing impact of the COVID-19 pandemic all reinforce the fragility the world faces, and the need to strengthen our collective defences against health emergencies.
This week marks one year since the Russian Federation invaded Ukraine. The health consequences of this war have been devastating. Since the beginning of the conflict, WHO has verified 802 attacks on health care, which have resulted in 101 deaths of health workers and patients. The war is exacerbating health needs, including for mental health and psychosocial support; rehabilitation; treatment for chronic diseases and others such as cancer, HIV and tuberculosis; and vaccinations for measles, polio and pneumonia and COVID-19.
These gaps are a risk to health today and for the future. To support our work, WHO has appealed for US$ 240 million to reach 11.4 million people with health assistance in Ukraine and refugee-receiving countries. The conflict is affecting health not just in Ukraine but around the world, with millions of people impacted by spiking food prices, especially in low-income countries.
As always, we need health for peace, and peace for health. At the Munich Security Conference last Friday [February 17, 2023], I said that right now, the world remains unprepared for another pandemic. While leaders have many other crises to deal with, attention on the future epidemic and pandemic threats must remain or we will pay a heavy price.
On COVID-19, new research adds to the weight of evidence about the benefits of vaccination and boosting. As well as dramatically reducing the chances of severe disease and death, the research reinforces that vaccination and boosting also reduce the likelihood of patients with COVID-19 from having a heart attack or stroke.
I emphasize these findings because it underlines once again why governments should continue to vaccinate and boost their populations – especially the most at-risk groups, including older people and health workers. It is also critical that governments maintain and strengthen surveillance and sequencing so that as the virus evolves, vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics can be evaluated and updated quickly as needed.
This week, WHO’s Technical Advisory Group for COVID-19 Vaccine Composition emphasized the need for continued surveillance to guide the composition of vaccines, and to assess their effectiveness. While the world is collectively in a better position than it was three years ago, this virus should not be underestimated. It’s therefore important to invest in research in order to develop vaccines that can provide broader protection and also reduce transmission. This week, WHO Member States are hosting discussions on amendments to International Health Regulations. Next week, countries will begin negotiations on a “zero draft” of the new pandemic accord. These discussions will be crucial for building a more effective health security architecture for the future, grounded in international law, equity and the fundamental right to health for all people.
No crisis happens in isolation. In a world of converging and overlapping crises, we need a shared, coherent and equitable global approach to shared, global health threats.
*Director-General of World Health Organization. (Excerpts from his press conference today).