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A New Era of Global Health Requires a New Social Contract: Reflections From WHA77

In the final days of May, world leaders and members of the global health community made their annual pilgrimage to Geneva for the 77th World Health Assembly (WHA). Over the week, historic conversations unfolded — from a failed attempt of member states to align on a pandemic accord to a warming world and its effect on human health.

Trey Watkins, EVP of Global Health and Corporate Impact at GCI Health attended WHA77, participating in a number of sessions and discussions. Here, Watkins shares his key takeaways from this year’s assembly, noting, “What remains clear is that our world demands a new way of working and a new social contract that is underpinned by several basic, yet key, themes.” 

Trust That Transcends Borders and Sectors

In a world increasingly driven by nationalism and individualism, trust is decreasing — even lacking. Trust is necessary, however, to break down divisive barriers across borders and sectors. “We see this cutting right across our work — from the pandemic accord to vaccinating last mile communities,” says Watkins. “And it will be crucial to addressing the health of people and the planet as we work to achieve health for all against the backdrop of rising humanitarian crises and an increasing global temperature.” As trust in governments and public institutions falters amid significant political instability in major nations around the world, Watkins points to “a levelling off — even rising — of public trust in the pharmaceutical industry, coupled with public expectation of business leaders to take a stand on socio-political issues.” This, he points out, offers an opportunity for greater cross-sectoral collaboration based on shared values. 

Ambition Grounded in Equity and Justice

With climate at the center of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) newly adopted 14th General Programme of Work (GPW), Watkins advises that, “greater resolve to translate rhetoric to action will be crucial.” A new, historic climate-health resolution adopted by the WHA member states serves as a call to action for more coordinated, accessible and sustainable financing to support country-led mitigation and adaptation efforts; for meaningful cross-sectoral engagement to reorient more climate-friendly healthcare systems; and for equitable solutions that address the impact of climate crises on communities most disproportionately burdened — from the rising incidence of cardiovascular diseases to shifting epidemiological trends of vector-borne diseases like dengue. Despite its strengths, notes Watkins, “the lack of reference to fossil fuels in the new WHA resolution indicates a crucial weakness of the agreement and creates the basis for a global advocacy movement for a just transition, which must be at the core of our efforts.”  

Financing That is Coordinated and Sustainable

Watkins notes that, “The next 12-18 months will see several global health initiatives vying for limited resources to continue — and expand — crucial global health work. But they are doing so at a time of both economic and humanitarian crisis, against which governments are reducing aid budgets and scaling military investments.” From the WHO’s investment case, the Global Fund, Gavi, the Global Polio Elimination Initiative and the World Bank’s International Development Assocation, Watkins cautions that organizations must ensure greater coordination of both advocacy and financing efforts. “Better, more compelling communications and storytelling to showcase the power of our global health investments is crucial,” he notes. “Strengthened engagement with philanthropy and business, including the healthcare industry, will also be important to ensure we are diversifying and de-risking investments for impact,” he says. “Now is not the time to reduce budgets; it’s the time to pool resources.”

*Photo credit: Marc Bader