WHO Director Talks Health Equity and Pandemic Response at Harvard Lecture


World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus discussed the global pandemic response and health equity on Friday at the Kennedy School’s annual Robert S. McNamara Lecture on War and Peace.

Harvard School of Public Health Dean Michelle A. Williams moderated the virtual conversation, which was jointly hosted by the Harvard Institute of Politics and the School of Public Health.

Ghebreyesus, Ethiopia’s former health minister, began his remarks by acknowledging the war in Ukraine and speaking on the positive link between peace and health.

“The authors of WHO’s constitution were well aware of the link between health and peace, which is why they wrote in the preamble that the health of all people is fundamental to the attainment of peace and security, and is dependent upon the fullest cooperation of individuals and states, ” Ghebreyesus said.


He then turned to the global response to the Covid-19 pandemic, and the lessons learned thus far.

“Covid-19 is a powerful demonstration that a pandemic is so much more than a health crisis. It illustrates the interconnectedness between health and economy, security, education, and the intimate links between the health of humans, animals and our planet, ” Ghebreyesus said.

Ghebreyesus said scientific innovations can widen inequality unless they are paired with a commitment to equity.

“As we speak, 83 percent of the population of Africa is yet to receive a single dose of vaccine,” Ghebreyesus said. “Vaccine nationalism, export bonds and bilateral deals between manufacturers and high income nations severely restricted the number of doses COVAX was able to ship in the first half of last year.”

COVAX is an initiative that aims to accelerate the development and manufacturing of Covid-19 vaccines, and to “guarantee fair and equitable for every country in the world,” according to WHO’s website. It is part of WHO’s Access to Covid-19 Tools Accelerator, a partnership aimed at accelerating development, production, and access to Covid-19 tests and treatments.

Ghebreyesus said the WHO is working to vaccinate countries in need, but the effort requires buy-in from countries worldwide.

“WHO and our partners are now working night and day to support countries to turn vaccines into vaccinations to reach our target of vaccinating 70 percent of the population of every country by the middle of this year,” he said.

“To reach that target, we’re calling all countries to urgently fill the ACT Accelerator’s financing gap of 16 billion US dollars to ensure equitable access to vaccines, tests, and treatments and PPE everywhere,” he added.

Ghebreyesus said that, in order to rally the world around equitable vaccination, people must see health inequity as a “shared threat.”

“Unless we vaccinate the whole world, we will all be at risk,” Ghebreyesus said. “We have to understand that this is in the best interest of everyone — every person, every nation.”

He said global vaccination requires global cooperation, and encouraged partnerships with South African biotechnology companies Afrigen and Biovac.

“If there is one country that has a significant investment in science, engineering and technology, it’s South Africa,” he said.

“I know Ghana, Senegal, Rwanda are making investments — and also Tunisia and Egypt,” he added. “I think partnering with those countries and especially academic institutions, South-South and North South, will be very, very important.”

Ghebreyesus concluded his prepared remarks with a comment on healthcare accessibility, acknowledging the recent death of Harvard physician and medical anthropologist Paul E. Farmer.

“Above all, the Covid-19 pandemic reminds us that health is not simply a luxury for the rich. It’s a fundamental human right,” Ghebreyesus said. “Paul once asked, ‘If access to healthcare is considered a human right, who is considered human enough to have that right?’ It’s that right that I, and the thousands of people I’m honored to call my colleagues, work for everyday.”

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