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COVID-19 and Global Health: The Real Enemy is not the Virus

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The world is going through a strange time. A time that forces us to be careful at every step. Because what we do now, will have a significant influence on the future. Therefore, Cordaid and Clingendael are jointly hosting a series of webinars to help the Netherlands with its decision-making process related to global health.

The aim is to bring experts from different sectors together (e.g. ministries, health organizations, universities and international development) and find an integrated and sustainable way out of the current and future health crises.

COVID-19: why investments in global health are needed now

On 16 April 2020, the first webinar of this series was held together with Marja Esveld from the Dutch Ministry of Foreign affairs, Maarten Oranje from Cordaid and Remco Van de Pas from ITM, Antwerp, and Clingendael.

Attended by participants from the Netherlands and abroad, the experts discussed challenges and opportunities that COVID-19 poses for global health; and highlighted how this crisis shows the importance of investing in global health.

A few highlights:

  • Currently, most countries in Europe are taking measures within their borders. But measures driven by solidarity, and international cooperation and exchange would have been more efficient. For example, a response at the European Union level from the beginning would have been much more efficient in tackling the crisis in Europe. Similarly, we are also globally connected -- especially when it comes to our health and wellbeing, economy, and law and order. Therefore, the need for a unified, global response is getting stronger.
  • A health system is as strong as its weakest link and situations are not the same worldwide when it comes to fighting this virus. When the Netherlands is talking about not exceeding existing ICU capacity, countries like Zimbabwe and Ethiopia are discussing the possibility of setting up isolation and treatment centres, IC units, and purchasing equipment for the basic healthcare set-up like ambulances and hospital beds. Many low-income countries by no means have the ability to do this all by themselves. And the whole world remains vulnerable until every place has strong health systems.
  • Reliable, timely data on national health are key to assess problems and provide support. There is also a massive gap in health data sharing from low-income countries because of the scarcity of e.g. medical professionals, adequate equipment, surveillance and other necessary systems. Honest data sharing can also backfire, as low-performing countries might be forced to face extra restrictions or will be ostracized as a result.
  • A multilateral organization like the World Health Organization can step in to solve some of these issues. It can bring nations together for a global approach and ensure that help is provided to countries that need it most. It can also find a diplomatic way to encourage countries to share health data and ensure that the data is interpreted within contexts. To reach this solution and to enable the WHO to perform this role, the WHO needs to be strongly supported by countries to increase its capacity and mandates.

Second webinar: the Dutch perspective on COVID-19 as a global health challenge

On 6 May 2020, Minister Sigrid Kaag, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Development Corporation, and Feike Sijbesma, appointed by the Ministry of Public Health, Welfare and Sports, as special envoy for the corona crisis joined the second webinar of this series. This session has been especially significant in understanding the Dutch standpoint in this global crisis.

The main outcome is: Dutch politicians must be convinced about the importance of international solidarity. It is a morally right step and has shared interests. It is also prudent from political, economic, security and stability perspectives, and in terms of reducing unwanted large-scale migration. Health crises and social and economic consequences elsewhere cause a ripple effect that has an impact on us. Only international solidarity can help solve this. In this regard, the Netherlands strongly supports EU and WHO leadership.

Minister Kaag has emphasized on some urgent steps for the Netherlands in the coming period. She stressed that fighting the virus requires multidisciplinary international cooperation. There is no other option. She inspired to avoid traditional, linear thinking of from problem to solutions, and take on multi-dimensional, cross-sectoral thinking as our way forward. And it should not always be a competition between themes and sectors. We must integrate, find the right balance and the right steps from recovery to development. Feike Sijbesma also stressed on the fact that the economy also must have both a re-start and a reset with a new model, that means a) more fairness in distribution, b) less dependency, c) climate and sustainability, d) preparedness for new global crises.

The minister recommended broadening the Health agenda which will include Health Systems Strengthening along with its existing emphasis on Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights, Mental Health and Psychosocial Support with special focus on Sexual and Gender-Based Violence. She stated that in general, health systems must be strengthened and be ready for future pandemics. Health, both mental and physical, should come together under the broad human rights and protection agenda. Also, we must give extra attention to the position of women and girls, who are especially vulnerable because of their social and economic disadvantaged position.

On a conclusive note, Frank Cobelens, Professor of Global Health, Amsterdam University Medical Center, said -- "COVID-19 makes it clear that global health matters." The pandemic makes it clear that investment in health is also an investment in the economy; prevention works, and investing in healthcare in low-income countries is not an "altruistic" act but a necessity. Among many other strong recommendations that he put forward, a few are: a) Government policy is determined on the basis of advice from experts, therefore, invest in expertise in global health. b) strengthen international corporation and open science, that can lead to unprecedented innovations like vaccines and data platforms; c) Create good conditions for achieving technical innovations, d) Coordinate efforts across disciplines and sectors.

Next webinar: global players responding to the COVID-19 pandemic

The next webinar (June 18, 3:00 pm CET) of this series will bring representatives from some global players who are at the forefront of the COVID-19 response. Monique Vledder, Practice Manager, Global Financing Facility of the World Bank; Anshu Banerjee, Senior Advisor to the World Health Organization Department of Reproductive Health and Research; and Nuria Molina, Gates Foundation Brussels Office. In this webinar they will discuss their current focus, views on cooperation with local partners on the ground, the asks of host countries, lessons to be learned for possible next waves of the virus and how societies could become more resilient. For details keep an eye on our social media. Don't miss it!