No one person’s experience of the 76th World Health Assembly can be the same. It is simply too big, too diverse, too sprawling an enterprise. Back in the UK I am continuing to reflect and connect, comparing notes with colleagues and catching up with events online. As we look towards the final few days of the Assembly, the first to be held in person since 2019, here are some immediate impressions from my time in Geneva.
Most strikingly, there was a palpable sense of anger which can be traced to the breakdown of global solidarity during the COVID-19 pandemic. “Some of our long-term partners deserted us at our time of need”, declared Uganda’s Minister of Health Jane Aceng. Minister Aceng was speaking at a side event at which I also spoke on the theme of ‘Power dynamics in global health: practising partnerships’.
The echoes of this breakdown in global solidarity are being felt by health workers across the globe. “All the applause cannot replace the fundamental need to act to protect and invest in the health workforce” argued Professor Ihsane Ben Yahya, reflecting widespread dismay that the health workforce in multiple countries have moved from being lauded and applauded to condemned in the space of a few months. Sana Gul Baloch, a Nursing Now Challenge fellow, powerfully underlined the fact that her early-career nursing colleagues are leaving the profession in droves because of unsafe working conditions, unfair pay, and a failure to properly support health workers’ wellbeing.
There was also an overwhelming sense that it is action rather than further diagnosis that is needed. Across the Assembly I heard numerous speakers deliver the same message. As Ethiopia’s Minister of Health Dr Lia Tadesse put it: “We know what needs to be done. Now we need action”.
There are multiple silver bullets in tackling health challenges, not least in clever and fast evolving uses of technology. Yet silver bullets can only take us so far. “There is no health without a workforce” was the central theme of the official roundtable on ‘Protecting and investing in the health and care workforce: an action-oriented agenda for the second half of the SDGs’. Fixing the challenge of a shortage of 10 million health workers is a fundamental area to focus on as we move towards the UN High-Level Meeting on Universal Health Coverage (UHC), a critical inflection point for international action as we hit the midpoint of the Sustainable Development Goals.
In my recent blog following the 5th Global Forum on Human Resources for Health I shared ideas for tackling this global workforce crisis, including the idea of persuading High-Income Countries like the UK to pool funds to help develop workforce in Low- and Middle-Income Countries that are sending health workers to the UK and elsewhere.
This needs several things. First, a commitment to grow funding. The recent £15 million in funding announced by the UK’s Department of Health and Social Care to strengthen health workforce is a welcome step here. Second, a concerted effort to shift the focus towards better valuing workforce and health system interventions over commodities, as the Pandemic Action Network (PAN)’s Aggrey Aluso argued this week. And above all, a renewed commitment to building partnerships between countries and the actors in their health systems.
These themes of partnership were central to the Rt Hon Andrew Mitchell’s recent Chatham House speech where he advocated for “patient, long-term partnership with people and governments around the world. Where engagement comes without coercion. And where tackling the development crisis and the climate crisis are not a choice, but two sides of the same coin that need to be resolved together”.
On this, surely, the jury is out. I give the last word to Minister Aceng, speaking at our side event at the start of my time in Geneva: “It is the actions of a partner, more than their expertise, that makes them trustworthy”. Let her, and our colleagues in our partner countries be the judge of how well we are rebuilding our partnerships as we move from the challenges of COVID-19 to the equally challenging realities of climate crisis and the myriad other health challenges the world faces.