Health Ministers’ meeting kicks off with call for unity, solidarity to face COVID-19 in the Americas

Health authorities discuss effects of COVID-19 and strategies to combat the pandemic at virtual PAHO Directing Council meetingWashington, D.C., 28 September 2020 (PAHO/WHO) – Countries must cooperate to fight against the COVID-19 pandemic and adapt, innovate and reorient public health work, the Director of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), Carissa F. Etienne said today at the opening session of the 58th Directing Council, a meeting of all health ministers in the Americas.  
“The post-COVID world will be shaped by decisions being made in the fight against the virus. The profound uncertainty about the virus and its trajectory, and about how other countries will respond, only magnifies the importance of leadership. At the very least, leaders of our region and indeed from across the world must cooperate to fight against the virus and to collectively eliminate it,” Dr. Etienne said. 
The pandemic requires “adaptations, innovation and reorientation of our technical cooperation as it cannot be business as usual” for the Organization and its countries, she added.  “They must make the case to their citizens that security at home requires cooperation abroad. The monumental loss of human lives resulting from this pandemic should be a sufficiently powerful reminder of the imperative need for meaningful and equitable change at the level of society and individuals.” Etienne said. 
The opening ceremony of the Directing Council today also included the Prime Minister of Barbados, Mia Mottley, and the President of Colombia, Ivan Duque, as well as the Secretary General of the Organization of American States, Luis Almagro; and the president of the Inter-American Development Bank, Luis Alberto Moreno. Costa Rican Minister of Health Daniel Salas welcomed participants, along with the Director-General of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. 
PAHO’s tailored guidance in the region 
The Prime Minister of Barbados, Mia Mottley, thanked PAHO for its unique role in addressing the COVID-19 pandemic in the Region of the Americas. “PAHO has served our states well for over 100 years and you will remain the grand dame of public health for at least 100 more,” she said. 
The Region must come together “despite our language, size, cultural differences and socio-economic difficulties to overcome this microscopic catalyst to changing world order that Mother Earth so needed. The virus has brought big countries around the world to their knees,” she said. This is why it is vital that PAHO “tailors your guidance to all of us – the big, the not so big and tiny countries like my own Barbados.” 
Mottley also highlighted the urgent need to jump start economies, and particularly for the Caribbean, to facilitate a safe return to cruise tourism upon which many countries’ economies depend. “But this must be done in such a way to ensure the safety of our workers,” calling for priority access to vaccinations and therapeutics when they are available, to tourism workers. 
A phased, science-based response 
The President of Colombia, Iván Duque described his country’s efforts to address what he called “the greatest challenge in our recent history.” Colombia, he said, faced the crisis “early, in phases and with reliable information, accompanied by experts and scientists.” The country worked in three axes: protecting the health of all, including the most vulnerable, protecting the social fabric to prevent the loss of decades’ achievements in overcoming poverty, and developing tools to revive our productive capacity, he said.  
Duque described how the country went from having a single laboratory at the start of the crisis to 100 public and private laboratories to process tests. It doubled intensive care beds in five months, and trained tens of thousands of health professionals. It also created the Emergency Mitigation Fund and a reserve with millions of pieces of personal protective equipment and implemented social measures that now reach nearly 10 million families. 
President Duque stressed that Colombia has also devised a reactivation plan aimed at mitigating COVID-19’s impacts on productive activity and laying the groundwork for a rapid, sustainable and socially conscious economic recovery, with a cross-cutting axis of strengthening public health. “We know the pandemic is not going to end soon, just as we know that we’ll only come out the other side if we do it together,” he stressed. 
Solidarity and unity in the region 
“Today, we as leaders of the Americas face a health challenge unprecedented in our lifetimes. COVID-19 has caused death and economic destruction in all of our countries. But we will continue to combat the pandemic together, in the spirit of family and the spirit of the Americas, said U.S. Secretary of Health Alex Azar II “No one in the Americas is safe from this virus until everyone in the Americas is safe.” 
Azar said that the United States “will extend a helping hand to all in need. We will continue to be, as we have been throughout the post-war era, the largest humanitarian and global health donor on earth. Within that work, our own Hemisphere is always a priority.” He said that his country has already sent tens of millions of dollars in development assistance to help fight the pandemic, as well as technical assistance, to at least 24 countries around the Americas. 
Azar said that his country looks forward “to working with member states and PAHO leadership for more improvements in the near future.” And he added: “Let us recommit to the spirit that launched health cooperation in the Americas: the open and honest spirit we need to protect us all from disease”.  
Costa Rica’s Minister of Health and outgoing President of the Directing Council Daniel Salas said, “In the midst of this pandemic, no decision has been easy.” He lamented that countries were competing in the race to acquire personal protective equipment, laboratory supplies, diagnostic technologies, and other inputs.  
To get ahead, “We must resort to solidarity and unity,” he said, urging countries “not to get carried away by the desire to acquire all vaccines” for COVID-19 when available, “if this prevents others from having access to this tool that will reduce the burden on health systems and gradually reopen economies.” The minister noted that “with resilience, empathy and union” the battle against COVID-19 can be won. 
The role of multilateral organizations 
The Secretary-General of the Organization of American States (OAS), Luis Almagro, said PAHO’s work was instrumental in 2020 in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. “The loss of life, jobs and uncertainty about the immediate future puts us in a situation where the responsiveness of public institutions and our governments, as well as the effectiveness and response of current governance systems, is tested,” Almagro stressed.  
Almagro noted that, for the OAS, “urgent action is a priority, especially in support of the poorest and most vulnerable,” and in this regard, “cooperation and coordination between international and inter-American agencies can help respond to the support needs posed by countries.” He highlighted the work of the OAS and PAHO to generate a multisector coordination and response in support of the countries of the region.   
“The challenges ahead as a region and multilateral aid are immense,” he said. “PAHO’s role will be central to meeting these objectives,” Almagro concluded.  
The president of the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), Luis Alberto Moreno, stressed that “the pandemic has demonstrated the fragility of health systems.” He alerted about a significant risk of setbacks, as well as poverty, and inequities and health outcomes.  
Moreno indicated that overcoming the pandemic crisis will require leadership, joint work between countries and innovation in the region. He highlighted COVAX, the mechanism to facilitate access to the COVID-19 vaccine, as an “excellent example of how countries and multilateral agencies can work on innovative solutions.” The IDB is working with countries to finance their participation in this mechanism, he explained, and has also approved more than $20 billion in loans so that countries can cope with the impact of the pandemic on health and other areas. Moreno called for strengthening health systems and increasing public health spending, among other measures, to ensure that countries are prepared for future emergencies. 
“Save lives now with the tools we have” 
The Director-General of WHO, Dr. Tedros, said that “the only way out of the pandemic is through national unity and global solidarity,” highlighting that “nationalism will only prolong the pandemic.  
But he also warned that we cannot wait for a vaccine. “We must save lives now with the tools we have now.” To achieve this, he proposed that countries adopt four priorities: prevent amplifying events with a risk-based approach at a local level; protect the vulnerable to save lives and reduce the burden on health systems; educate and empower communities to protect themselves and others with a comprehensive approach; and get the basics right – find, test, isolate, quarantine cases and trace their contacts. 
“We have an enormous challenge to bring the pandemic under control, but the even bigger challenge will be what we do when the pandemic ends,” said Tedros, emphasizing that “investing in health is not just the right thing to do, it is the smart thing to do.” 
Dr. Tedros highlighted that while there will be many reports, reviews and recommendations about the response to the pandemic. “We must all look in the mirror. Whatever lessons there are to learn this time, we must learn them. Whatever changes there are to make, we must change. Whatever errors we have made, we must have the humility to own them. We need honest judgement.” 
“History will judge us – not just on what we did during the pandemic, but what we did when it was over. It is not an excuse to fail on the commitments we have made,” he said 
Discussions on countries’ response to the COVID-19 pandemic will be addressed in depth on Tuesday, 29 September.  
The Directing Council of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) brings together ministers of health and high-level delegates from PAHO/WHO member countries to discuss and analyze regional health policies, and to set priorities for technical cooperation and cross-country collaboration. Links
 Documents 58th Directing Council 
58th Directing Council 
58th Directing Council Livestream 

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