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EXPLAINER: Why is the World Health Organization leading the fight against COVID-19 and what is the World Health Assembly?

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Why am I hearing so much about WHO in the response to COVID-19?

COVID-19 threatens the health and wellbeing of everyone on our planet. So it requires a rapid, coordinated, evidence-based global response. The World Health Organization (commonly known as WHO) is overseeing that response and the efforts to protect all people, everywhere. WHO is also coordinating the search for scientific solutions to prevent, test and treat the virus. And for the benefit of future generations, WHO is working to make sure the world invests in health systems to prevent and prepare for future outbreaks.

What is WHO?

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WHO is the specialized global health agency of the United Nations. Made up of 194 member states, WHO works worldwide to promote the highest standard of health for all people, regardless of race, religion, gender, political belief, economic or social condition. 

WHO’s mission is to promote health, keep the world safe, and serve the vulnerable. Access to affordable and adequate health care is a human right and universal healthcare is a key principle guiding WHO’s work. By 2023, WHO aims to ensure that  one billion more people benefit from universal health coverage. At least half of the world’s population lacks access to essential health services and out-of-pocket expenses drive almost 100 million people into poverty each year. WHO connects leading health experts from around the world to produce reference materials on global health issues and make recommendations to better the health of all people.

What does WHO do exactly?

WHO provides countries with vital recommendations and standards on public health, based on the best available scientific evidence. WHO’s Global Health Observatory stores data gathered from around the world to paint a clear picture of who is getting sick, from which disease, and where, so that efforts can be targeted to those areas most vulnerable. Thanks to WHO’s guidance, people know when air is safe to breathe and water is healthy to drink, when their children are the height and weight they need to be, and how to prevent, diagnose and treat diseases ranging from Alzheimers to Zika. 

As well as collaborating with global health partners, WHO works alongside local partners and Ministries of Health through its offices in 150 countries. On the ground, WHO distributes medical equipment and lab supplies, and supports rapid response teams around the world. As well as assisting countries with designing and implementing national health plans and advising on how to strengthen their health systems and services.  Now more than ever, the world needs WHO.

What is WHO doing to fight COVID-19?

During health crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic, WHO  gathers global data and brings together evidence and expertise from the world’s best scientists to offer  advice and guidance to countries according to their unique situations. In a global health crisis, the world is only as strong as its weakest health system.  WHO works to assist countries in need through offering responsible recommendations, facilitating supply chains, and delivering equipment from both the Organization and other Member States. 

As well as assisting individual countries, WHO is coordinating the hundreds of studies and trials underway around the world in the united search for a COVID-19 vaccine and treatment. Knowledge is power and WHO is facilitating the sharing of knowledge in the fight against this deadly coronavirus. If treatments or vaccines are discovered, WHO will guide the  equitable distribution of these valuable commodities worldwide so that the most vulnerable people don’t miss out.

What is the World Health Assembly?

Every year, delegates from all 194 Member States that make up WHO gather to agree the Organization’s priorities, leadership, and budgets. At the Assembly, new health goals are set, and tasks are assigned in order to reach those goals.  

Delegations consider and provide guidance on policies and courses of action, which are then coordinated and overseen by the secretariat. While WHO can make recommendations and suggest courses of action, particularly in unprecedented times of global health risk, it is ultimately up to each government to determine their response and act upon it. The WHO secretariat does not have the power to enforce any action from individual Member States.

How will the WHA73 work?

Every year in May, hundreds of delegates travel to Geneva, Switzerland, to meet and make decisions on global health. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the World Health Assembly in 2020 will instead be virtual, with a shortened agenda. It will take place on 18-19 May.

At WHA 2020, Member States will deliver statements focused largely on the COVID-19 pandemic, report their progress in fighting COVID-19, share knowledge on the evolving situation, and consider a draft resolution on COVID-19. Exchanging unique perspectives, as well as hearing from leading experts in various fields, is crucial to navigating the coming months and years, not just as individual countries but as a global community.

The Director-General will deliver a major address on the COVID-19 pandemic, the international response, and on WHO’s mandate, transformation and impact. He will welcome a number of high-level speakers as well.

World health statistics 2020

Why does WHO and WHA matter so much right now?

As countries fight their own battles against the same virus, WHO’s presence has never been more essential. As the authority on health issues within the United Nations system, WHO works to connect the best minds from around the world to solve this crisis together. 

Different countries will face different outcomes from COVID-19. WHO is working to gather data and continue educating the world on the virus as the situation evolves. All WHO’s work is focussed on promoting the roles of evidence-based science, guided by the United Nations’ principles of neutrality, impartiality, human rights and equity.


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