As part of the World Leaders Forum taking place at Columbia this week, leaders gathered for a Global Health Security event featuring a keynote speaker, a moderated panel discussion, and an open Q and A session. Bwogger Lori Luo reports.

This week, Columbia is hosting its annual World Leaders Forum that invites various world leaders to Columbia to speak about global issues. Part of this was a Global Health Security event focused on global preparedness for major pandemics, especially as we approach the 5th anniversary of the UN Security Council resolution on the Ebola crisis.

The event opened with a keynote address from Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland, the former Prime Minister of Norway and former Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO). At WHO, she was a global leader in many fights regarding global health, helping to create a framework on tobacco control and being a pivotal figure in response to the SARS virus outbreak. From 2007 to 2010, she was also the UN special envoy for climate change. Dr. Brundtland is also currently a member of the Elders, an organization of global leaders founded by Nelson Mandela.

In her address, Dr. Brundtland focused on the importance of global responsibility to health as we live in an increasingly interconnected world, one where a pandemic could quickly spread and claim millions of lives and one where the potential escalation of a health crisis from local to regional to global continuously gets faster. She focused on the example of Ebola, where now, in the Congo, the lack of existing health infrastructure exacerbates the Ebola crisis. In her view, humankind is currently moving towards the 21st century equivalent of the 1918 epidemic of the Spanish Flu, a pandemic that claimed more lives than World War One. Combined with the eroding trust in institutions and the spread of inaccurate information, we are headed towards a doomsday scenario.

However, Dr. Brundtland stated, this is a doomsday scenario that is preventable, but there are alarming gaps that need to be filled in our current healthcare system.

One example she discussed was the SARS outbreak, which took a few weeks to identify and then a few months to contain while the WHO had to also balance politics as they were some of the only ones with clear policies they could point to. Here, Dr. Brundtland emphasized the necessity of transparency and open communication. She brought up the example of China, where during such a crucial and global crisis, the Health Minister was told to specifically ignore her calls. In the end, the Vice Minister had to become the Health Minister and travel to Geneva to help China fix its image.

One area that Dr. Brundtland specifically addressed was the responsibility of governments to prepare and maintain global health security. The world is only as strong as its weakest link. However, governments at present moment hold skepticism about preparation, instead choosing to address current problems. She specifically emphasized that health specifically cannot be a question of income, but rather should be seen as an issue of human rights.

Dr. Brundtland was firm that nations need to meet their responsibility towards health, especially universal health care. She described universal health care as a win-win scenario: it would increase trust in citizens towards their country and be a worthwhile investment that, according to research, would only require a spending of $1-2 per person per year and have a return on investment of 10:1 or higher. One specific area that needs focus is preventative and primary care so that vulnerable groups are covered as well. Furthermore, vulnerable groups should not be neglected, families should not be separated from their kids, and minority groups should not be penalized; that is not a sign of a healthy society.

Following this address from Dr. Brundtland, there was a panel discussion moderated by Professor Wilmot G. James, visiting professor of political science and pediatrics. The participants on the panel were Dr. Ernest J. Moniz, the Co-Chair and Chief Executive Officer of the Nuclear Threat Initiative; Dr. Nila Farid Moeloek, the Minister of Health of Indonesia; and Dr. Chikwe Ihekweazu, Director General of the Nigerian Centre for Disease Control. Each participant responded to Dr. Brundtland’s address and discussed health in regards to their countries.

Dr. Ernest J. Moniz focused on the necessity of cross-sectoral development in order to support the health system. He brought up the example that if something did happen, National Security would need to be informed. Similarly, he discussed the role of financing in health, specifically how for financing to work, there needs to be recognition and acceptance of health security and biosecurity to be a collective responsibility as diseases do not respect borders. Dr. Moniz also focused on the general need for health security, whether its agricultural health or its with a recognition of new threats that emerge with new technologies. An outbreak of an engineering organism, he said, would test and also emphasize the need for cross-sectoral collaboration.

In her response, Dr. Nila Faris Moniz focused on the emergence of very crucial threats that spread fast and unpredictably. She brought up the example of the avian influenza outbreak in 2003. This event led to Indonesia developing various measures to combat infectious diseases, such as centers and labs. Indonesia, she said, was even voluntarily assessed in 2019 on its response capability and actively participates in the global health cycle.

Dr. Chikwe Ihekweazu focused in on the weakest link message in Dr. Brundtland’s address, emphasizing again that global health security impacts everyone’s lives and that there needs to advocates of health security. There need to be institutions that deliver information and specifically, an organization with a clear mandate to unite individual components. There are organizations now that are good at letting different countries know about problems but not good at ensuring that the information and expertise of different institutions are disseminated.

The panel then briefly discussed funding, where Dr. Brundtland focused the long frustrations of WHO and the World Bank in regards to the lack of followup, mentioning a new initiative to monitor different groups from September 2019 to September 2020 to show accountability. She also focused again on the fact that governments are responsible to uphold the promises they make at international gatherings to funding. In elaborating on collective responsibility, Dr. Moniz brought up a new index NTI Bio is issuing soon in collaboration with Johns Hopkins modeled on the nuclear index. It will examine specific countries in the aims to provide countries with independent views of improvement.

The panel was then open for a Q and A from the general public. People asked many questions, but one particularly interesting one was what progressives ought to do for public health in an age of nationalism. The panel discussed historical changes that had occurred, notably the first Earth Day in the 1970s that saw massive changes and the US becoming, for a short while, a global leader in environmental advancements. Many on the panel believed that the time is ripe for the citizens of the US to react again and to demand change. Dr. Moniz emphasized that he believes we are seeing a shift in the public understanding that it is no longer only about future generations, but this one as well.

Image via Bwog Staff