Commonwealth health ministers unite on post-COVID-19 health agenda

Commonwealth Secretary-General and WHO Director-General with signed MoU
Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, The Rt Hon Patricia Scotland QC and WHO Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

NEW YORK| The 34th edition of the Commonwealth Health Ministers’ Meeting (CHMM) opened today with a call from ministers for governments to build sustainable and resilient health systems that can withstand future crises and advance Universal Health Coverage (UHC) goals towards global health security.

Convened under the theme ‘The Road to COVID-19 Recovery: Lessons Learnt for Building Health System Resilience to advance UHC and Global Health Security in the Commonwealth’, the meeting provides a forum for ministers to assess the current health challenges in the Commonwealth and discuss effective solutions and strategies, as the world recovers from the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Speaking at the meeting, the Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, The Rt Hon Patricia Scotland QC, said:

“The pandemic continues to be a profound crisis in our world. But as well as being a distinctive threat, COVID-19 has exposed the inherent weaknesses and inequities in our health systems – as a Commonwealth, and as a global community.

“Even countries with the most advanced health systems have been forced to grapple with severe disruption to essential services and primary health care. For many low and middle-income countries, these disruptions were magnified, and progress toward pre-pandemic commitments on urgent priorities such as malaria and neglected tropical diseases have been inhibited.

“As we begin to look beyond the pandemic, we can see the need for more resilient health systems with more clarity than ever. We must ensure that our health systems are well-prepared, well-resourced and flexible enough to absorb the shocks caused by health-related emergencies.”

Secretary-General Scotland also highlighted issues of health inequalities, which were exacerbated during the pandemic.  She pointed specifically to the challenge of equally distributing vaccines – although more than 1.3 billion people in the Commonwealth are fully vaccinated, more than 40% are yet to receive even a single dose. In some of Africa’s least developed Commonwealth countries, vaccination rates remain less than 15%.

The Secretary-General called for urgent efforts to vaccinate 70% of the population of each country – something that was highlighted in a recent Memorandum of Understanding signed between the Secretariat and the World Health Organization (WHO).

In his keynote address, the WHO Director-General, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, echoed Secretary-General Scotland’s calls, urging ministers and governments to build a global consensus on strengthening the global architecture for health emergency preparedness, response and resilience.

“The COVID-19 pandemic is not over anywhere until it’s over everywhere,” Dr Tedros said, adding that “our biggest challenge now is supporting in-country delivery of vaccines” where almost one billion people, globally, remain unvaccinated – many of them in Commonwealth countries.

Reiterating WHO’s commitment to continue collaborating with the Secretariat to support Commonwealth countries in realising their Sustainable Development Goals, Dr Tedros called on governments to:

  • Scale up the COVID-19 vaccine rollout as rapidly as possible to reach 70% vaccination coverage
  • Prioritize robust and sustainable financing for health, with a strong primary health care infrastructure accessible to all communities. 
  • Reaffirm commitments to the ambitious Commonwealth goals, particularly on the elimination of malaria, trachoma and cervical cancer; and
  • Recommit to accelerating progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals

This year’s meeting is being chaired by Jamaica’s Minister of Health and Wellness, Hon. Dr Christopher Tufton. In his opening remarks, the Honourable Chairperson said:

“Over the past two years, countries within the Commonwealth and across the world have experienced a once in a lifetime event that has tested our capacities to ensure the sustainability of nation-states.  However, this crisis also presented unique opportunities to support and strengthen our health systems.

The pandemic, which we are still experiencing, is a call to action for us, in this generation, to move the needle closer to eliminating inequity in the delivery of health care services.”

The meeting also saw the launch of the 2022 Commonwealth Malaria Report, which will be deliberated by ministers in the run-up to the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) and the Kigali Summit on Malaria and Neglected Tropical Diseases (NTDs). The new report provides a snapshot of the challenges and progress being made to meet malaria targets across the Commonwealth and important insights into the trends in malaria interventions.

More than 150 delegates from 36 countries are attending the annual meeting, which will reconvene on 19th May 2022 with high-level and breakout sessions aligned with the Commonwealth COVID-19 Open-Ended Technical Working Group on pandemic management, digital health and sustaining health gains.