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WHO Director-General's address at the 68th session of the WHO Regional Committee for the Eastern Mediterranean

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Your Excellency Dr Hala Zayed, Minister of Health and Population of Egypt and Chair of the 67th Regional Committee,

Honourable ministers and heads of delegation,

My dear brother Dr Ahmed Al-Mandhari, Regional Director for the Eastern Mediterranean,

Excellencies, dear colleagues and friends,

Assalamu'alaikum warahmatullahi wabarakatuh.

Good morning to all of you.

It’s such a great honour to be with you again, although I wish we could be together in person. I hope that will be possible next year.

Nothing beats meeting face-to-face, but I congratulate the Regional Office on its efforts to build a fully virtual environment for this year’s Regional Committee.

Although the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted our lives and our work, it has also given us opportunities to innovate.

As my brother Ahmed said, in September he and I had the honour of visiting Lebanon and Afghanistan together.

Our trip was a vivid reminder of the some of the difficulties you face in your region, but also of the vital role that WHO plays in supporting countries to face those difficulties.

In Lebanon, we had the opportunity to meet with the President, the Prime Minister, the Minister of Public Health, Dr Firas, and others.

I would like to use this opportunity to thank the Minister of Health for his commitment and dedication. Ahmed and I were very happy to see the confidence that the people in Lebanon have in Dr Firas, so we have an opportunity in him and we need to support him.

The deadly combination of the political and financial crisis, last year’s explosion at Beirut port, continued regional instability, and the COVID-19 pandemic are having devastating consequences for the health of Lebanon’s people.

There is a serious shortage of supplies, medical equipment and fuel. As we speak, Lebanon is without electricity because of a lack of fuel to keep the grid running.

As Ahmed said, 2000 medical doctors and 1500 registered nurses have left the country, and 600 private pharmacies have closed.

WHO continues to work to support the health system and the delivery of essential services and supplies in these very difficult circumstances.

For example, last year’s explosion at Beirut port completely destroyed a warehouse used to store essential medicines. With the support of the European Union, Kuwait and Japan, WHO has rehabilitated the warehouse, and increased its capacity by five times.

In Afghanistan, my brother Ahmed and I met with senior members of the Taliban leadership, including the interim Prime Minister, as well as UN partners, health care workers and patients, and WHO staff.

I would like to use this opportunity to thank Qatar for arranging and supporting the trip, and for the personal support from Minister Hanan.

Afghanistan’s health system is on the brink of collapse.

The breakdown in health services is affecting the availability of basic and essential health care, as well as humanitarian assistance, polio eradication, and COVID-19 vaccination efforts.

The focus of our efforts now is to support and sustain the Sehatmandi project, which is the backbone of Afghanistan’s health system, providing care for millions of people through 2300 health facilities, including in remote areas.

But because of a funding pause by major donors, only 17% of the Sehatmandi facilities are fully functional, and two-thirds have stock-outs of essential medicines.

WHO is calling on international donors to rapidly re-commit to finance the Sehatmandi, as they have done for almost two decades.

As you know, Afghanistan is also one of two countries in the world where polio remains endemic. There has only been one case of wild poliovirus reported so far this year, compared with 56 in 2020.

WHO and our partners are ready to begin a country-wide house-to-house polio vaccination campaign and include measles and COVID-19 vaccination in an integrated campaign.

In our discussions with the Taliban leadership, we also offered to support and accelerate the process of reopening high schools to girls, in partnership with other UN agencies.

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I’m very pleased to note that cases and deaths from COVID-19 in your region are now at their lowest levels for a year, after the devastating peak in August, although I know some countries are still facing a very serious situation.

But the pandemic is far from over. Complacency is now as dangerous as the virus. Now is the time to be on heightened alert, not to let down your guard.

We are also painfully aware that inequitable access to vaccines is leaving millions of people in your region at risk.

WHO’s global targets are to support every country to vaccinate at least 40% of its population by the end of this year, and 70% by the middle of next year.

So far, only six countries in the region have been able to reach the 40% target, and we are committed to supporting all of you to get there.

WHO and our partners are doing everything we can to find ways of scaling up the production and distribution of vaccines as much as possible, and as fast as possible.

Almost 70 million doses have now been distributed to 21 EMRO countries through COVAX, and we’re pleased to see that COVAX is picking up speed.

Between now and the end of the year, COVAX aims to deliver more than 200 million doses to EMRO countries.

And again, I would like to use this opportunity to appreciate the innovative responses you’re undertaking in your countries, as I witnessed during my recent visits to Bahrain and Kuwait. Innovative, locally-adaptable responses would help better than general guidance.

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Even while we respond to the pandemic, we must learn the lessons it is teaching us.

As you know, there have been several reports and reviews seeking to answer these critical challenges.

As we have studied these reports, we have identified four key areas for action.

First, we need better global governance that is inclusive, equitable and accountable.

The current global health security architecture is complex and fragmented, and voluntary mechanisms have not led to the coordinated and coherent global approach we need in the face of a global threat.

New governance mechanisms are needed, supported by high-level political engagement and legally-binding instruments that are inclusive and accountable.

We believe an international agreement on pandemic preparedness and response will provide a much-needed overarching framework for global cooperation, setting the rules of the game, and enhancing solidarity among nations.

We seek the support of all EMRO Member States for this very important initiative as we approach the Special Session of the World Health Assembly next month.

Second, we need more and better financing for national and global preparedness and response.

Cycles of panic and neglect have created a financing ecosystem that is insufficient, inefficient and inequitable.

We need a substantial increase in domestic investment, including in primary health care, and in international financing to support low- and lower-middle income countries.

Crucially, we believe any financing facilities must be built using existing financial institutions, rather than creating new ones that further fragment the global health architecture.

Third, we need better systems and tools, across the One Health spectrum.

Already, WHO has taken steps to start building some of those tools, including the new Hub for Epidemic and Pandemic Intelligence in Berlin.

And fourth, we need a strengthened, empowered and sustainably financed WHO at the centre of the global health architecture.

With 194 Member States and 152 country offices, WHO has a unique global mandate, unique global reach and unique global legitimacy.

But over several decades, it has been progressively weakened by a debilitating imbalance between assessed and voluntary, earmarked contributions that distort our budget and constrain our ability to deliver what our Member States expect of us.

Redressing this imbalance is critical if WHO is to be the independent and authoritative institution the world needs it to be.

We urge all Member States to support and invest in strengthening your WHO, rather than creating new structures that may only lead to more fragmentation.

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Excellencies,

As always, your agenda this week reflects the wide range of challenges you face as a region, including diabetes, emergency preparedness, integrated disease surveillance, building resilient health systems and more.

WHO remains committed to supporting each of your countries to respond to the pandemic, and to build forward better.

I would like to leave you with three specific requests:

First, we seek your commitment to stay the course with the proven public health and social measures that we know work, in combination with vaccination.

Second, we seek your support for the idea of an international agreement on pandemic preparedness and response.

And third, we seek your support for building a stronger WHO that is empowered and financed sustainably.

Thank you all once again for your hard work and support for WHO at this critical time.

And we look forward to your continued support as we work together to promote health, keep the world safe and serve the vulnerable.

Shukran jazeelan. I thank you.