Africa: Conflict, Climate Crisis and Covid – World Needs Peace for Health and Health for Peace

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To mark World Health Day on 7 April, the Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO), Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, defines a bold initiative to promote peace and health in order to protect the planet and its people.

Today I am announcing a new ‘Peace for Health and Health for Peace’ global initiative.

Recognizing that peace is foundational to all our work on health, development and tackling the inter-related challenges of conflict, the climate crisis and COVID-19, the initiative aims to foster new dialogue. I will be asking other United Nations agencies, civil society, sporting organizations, academia and business, to get behind this initiative,. Ultimately it should be part of an overall peacebuilding effort that helps the people at highest risk of disease and death.

Multiple emergencies are hitting the world simultaneously

Last week, I heard directly from Jarno Habicht, WHO’s Ukraine representative, who was receiving fresh health supplies to a warehouse in Lviv, about the high cost of the Russian invasion for Ukrainian people, the damage caused to hospitals, and the mental and physical impact the war is having on health workers and the civilian population.

But tragically, Ukraine is not the only emergency the world is facing. In Afghanistan, people are selling even their kidneys to survive. In north-east Africa, one of the longest blockades in history has largely shut off deliveries of food, fuel and medicines to millions of people in Tigray. This humanitarian calamity includes mass starvation.

Multiple climatic catastrophes are hitting some countries simultaneously, as the climate crisis worsens. In the same week last month, Australia’s coral reefs bleached, while other parts of the country dealt with cataclysmic floods.

Meanwhile, the Covid 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 – putting substantial pressure on health systems around the world.

Rising conflict, a worsening climate and a prolonged pandemic, together, have led to the ‘Doomsday Clock’ becoming stuck at 100 seconds to midnight, which remains the closest the world has ever been to a civilization-ending apocalypse since the clock’s creation in 1947.

It’s easy to feel despair but there are things we can do at the micro and macro levels to make a difference.

To prevent the current multidimensional crises from turning into a humanity death spiral, concerted and creative efforts to bend the arc of history towards a solutions orientated, healthier and sustainable world are urgently necessary. The vast majority of the world wants to live in a world free of war, where people can pursue useful work, put food on the table and have access to essential health services and quality education.

There is much we can do. For example, we can create humanitarian corridors so people can access basics, including nutritious food, fuel and health services. Health-care facilities must be exempt as militaty targets – a disturbing trend in contemporary conflicts.

Peace underpins all that is good in our societies.

While conflict is relatively easy to start, the search for peace is often elusive. Wars have a habit of spiraling, escalating towards unforeseen 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 for our humanitarian partners on the ground, war makes everything exponentially harder and sometimes impossible.

As part of any peace initiative, ensuring access to quality and nutritious food is also a basic requirement, alongside other essential amenities such as education.

The Millennium Declaration – developed at the turn of the century – outlined the nexus between peace, security, development and health. War has diverted attention from our struggles against a heating world and the Covid-19 pandemic. Both of these crises need international cooperation to resolve.

Even in a highly divided world, progress is possible. At the height of the Cold War, the USA and USSR worked together to readicate smallpox, which remains one of the great scientific achievements of our time and provides lessons to our own existential challenges.

While war is dominating the attention of decision makers and media, the pandemic is by no means over. WHO recognizes the ongoing threat of Coved-19 and is working with countries to track the virus and ensure that all opportunities to boost the immunity of populations are taken.

The goal of vaccinating 70 percent of the world’s population is achievable. I’m pleased to see countries, including Vietnam, Pakistan and Nigeria, demonstrate that progress is possible, if resources and efforts are effectively targeted.

At the same time, it is important to strengthen health systems, so countries can address the many health problems that have worsened during the pandemic, erasing many of the recent gains. We also must prepare all nations for future variants of concerns and potential new pandemics.

While rich countries are rolling out ‘second boosters’ – fourth doses effectively – it is unacceptable that one-third of the world’s population, including 83 percent of the people of Africa, have not received a single a single Covid vaccination.

A few groups in wealthy countries are suggesting that vaccinating the world to their own standards is not worth it. This is seriously shortsighted. After all, the pandemic and the resulting challenges, such as supply-chain chaos, remain a threat to the health, peace and security of all.