Health diplomacy is a powerful tool to combat global threats
Many would contend that the coronavirus pandemic is a tragic, yet avoidable, catastrophe. In retrospect, perhaps our principal oversight was the lack of swift, coordinated global efforts to contain the outbreak, coupled with an absence of interconnected alert systems, differing preparedness measures and poorly aligned messaging.
Indeed, the pandemic served as a harsh wake-up call highlighting the need for enhanced global health policy coordination between different regions and across multiple sectors.
The world faces numerous global health challenges in the near future as a result of intensifying transnational factors directly affecting population health. These include globalization, climate change, natural disasters, pollution, weak healthcare systems, food insecurity, mass migration, infectious diseases and poverty. As such, global health diplomacy will be more important than ever to channel the required resources to improve health outcomes, respond to public health crises, upgrade health security, ensure equitable access to healthcare, and promote peace and security.
Global health diplomacy can be conducted in a variety of venues centering on health, such as the World Health Assembly. Partnerships can be forged with a cast of influential actors, such as governments, international organizations, academic institutions, research centers, think tanks, policy networks, foundations, civil society and the private sector.
Numerous countries, such as Switzerland, France, Germany, Japan, the UK and the US, have launched strategies centering on global health in order to play an effective role in this area. For example, the German government’s global health strategy 2020-2030 has five priorities revolving around promoting health and preventing disease, strengthening health systems, protecting health by monitoring cross-border health hazards, advancing research and innovation for global health, and addressing the environmental factors contributing to public health.
Another example is the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which tackles health challenges such as eradicating polio and malaria, containing neglected tropical diseases, reducing tuberculosis cases, developing vaccines, and improving maternal, newborn and child health.
Global health issues have been in the spotlight across numerous policy agendas, spearheaded by the World Health Organization and its partners. One of the key policy priorities underway is bolstering countries’ preparedness to manage health emergencies and pandemics by strengthening healthcare systems and training medical workers. Equally important is the formulation of strategies to contain menacing communicable diseases, such as malaria, measles, and polio.
There is also a need for the global community of experts to collaborate on research projects and share updated evidence-based research and solutions available on a wide range of health issues. Additionally, accelerating the development of treatments and vaccines through funding efforts will ensure we are ready to fight off health threats. Working on advancing universal health coverage for disadvantaged segments, such as low-income groups or refugees, is an important aspect of upholding their human rights.
Furthermore, identifying a set of unfair critical determinants of health inequalities, such as gender, ethnicity, income, education, disadvantaged rural areas, employment, or disability, will also need to be a priority for public health officials.
There are many successful examples of global health diplomacy. The 2014-2016 West Africa Ebola outbreak has been successfully contained thanks to global health diplomacy efforts. During the outbreak, the EU provided aid that contributed to epidemic surveillance, deployed health workers, community awareness programs, and research on potential treatments, vaccines and diagnostic tests.
The Middle East has many experiences and achievements in the area of global health diplomacy.
Additionally, the US Agency for International Development worked in partnership with global organizations and affected governments to implement a range of critical interventions, such as epidemiological surveillance, water and sanitation hygiene, procurement of personal protective equipment, and training for healthcare workers, focused on case management, infection prevention and control and contact tracing. It also pledged $2.4 billion to support West Africa Ebola recovery in education, health, agriculture and food security, governance, technology and innovation.
The Middle East has many experiences and achievements in the area of global health diplomacy. A recent example came during a 2013 polio outbreak in Syria and Iraq. The success of the response depended on partnerships with the governments of eight countries: Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria and Turkey. The incident was declared a public health emergency and a coordinated strategic response plan engaged a number of international stakeholders as well to vaccinate 27 million children.
Global actors included the World Health Organization, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, UNICEF, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Rotary International, and GAVI, the vaccine alliance — forming the Global Polio Eradication Initiative. As a result, polio was contained in the region within six months of its identification.
In future, more coordination with international organizations will be needed to champion the region’s health agenda. Political instability and intensifying conflicts in recent decades have disrupted essential healthcare services for citizens, in addition to displaced individuals, migrants and refugees fleeing conflict zones.
Furthermore, the region should capitalize on fruitful partnerships with regional and international stakeholders to manage health challenges, such as the Middle East respiratory syndrome, malnutrition, humanitarian health relief, communicable diseases and vaccine enrolment. It is essential that the region’s policymakers voice their health priorities in global venues in order to leverage transformative cooperation and policy solutions from world-class health experts and funders.
The future will require nations to rethink global health diplomacy as a powerful tool, helping us to collectively withstand impending global health threats and ensuring improved health for all.
- Sara Al-Mulla is an Emirati civil servant with an interest in human development policy and children’s literature. She can be contacted at www.amorelicious.com.