The World Health Organization was designed to address threats exactly like COVID-19—where global cooperation is our only chance of success.
The global community is racing to slow down the spread of COVID-19, a pandemic that has claimed the lives of over 160,000 people globally and sickened over 2 million more. As researchers and epidemiologists work around the clock to find a solution to halt both the deaths and the spread of the disease, our health workers are leaving loved ones at home to fight on the front lines of this crisis. I am moved daily by the stories of those doctors, midwives, nurses and other essential workers, who are working tirelessly to keep us safe, facing the dangers head-on, often with inadequate equipment and information.
Much of the world is locked down, isolated in households and communities, renewing and deploying the age-old and time-tested techniques of personal, social, surface and environmental hygiene, which all depend on the availability of clean water—an essential resource often scant where it is needed most. In Africa, the virus has spread to dozens of countries within weeks. Governments and health authorities across the continent are striving to limit widespread infections.
As always in times of crisis, the most vulnerable among us will be the ones hit hardest. Women and girls will suffer the most from this disease, and we have already seen a rise in gender-based violence and rights violations of pregnant women. Sufferers of domestic violence are now locked down with their abusers, isolated from their support systems, and other at-risk groups are unable to access routine services. The ripple effect of COVID-19 runs far beyond the disease itself. Humanity will bear the scars of this pandemic for many years to come.
Around the world, we are seeing countries and communities acting both together and apart. Fear is impeding mechanisms for an effective response to the coronavirus pandemic, giving rise to anger, racism, a rhetoric of blame and a dangerous spread of misinformation. Beyond health services, countries with large ratios of informal economic sector citizens are struggling to feed themselves, increasing the present hunger and suffering, as well as the undeniably unwelcome prospects of unrest.
Now more than ever, the world needs a well-functioning global organization designed to facilitate international coordination. The global community must unite behind a strong World Health Organization, an institution designed to address exactly this kind of global issue, our standard-bearer in these unprecedented times for this unprecedented virus. Countries need factual information based strictly in science with the benefit of a global perspective to ensure the most vulnerable communities have the support and information they need to survive.
The WHO works closely with governments to provide evidence-based guidelines for response and facilitate adaptation to the country context. Remote support is being provided to affected countries on the use of electronic data tools, so national health authorities can better understand the outbreak in their countries. Preparedness and response to previous epidemics is providing a firm foundation for many African countries to tackle the spread of COVID-19. Following their lead, which has urged nations to track and trace in order to tackle and treat the coronavirus, my organization, the Wellbeing Foundation Africa, has partnered with Pocket Patient MD to launch an app-based digital platform that enables individuals across Nigeria to run a health check and identify early symptoms of COVID-19.
Where basic preventative measures by individuals and communities remain the most powerful tool to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the WHO is helping local authorities craft radio messaging and TV spots to inform the public about the risks of COVID-19 and what measures should be taken. The organization is also helping to counter disinformation and is guiding countries on setting up call centers to ensure the public is informed. Every country is a beneficiary and a partner of the WHO’s work.
In the same vein, it is inconceivable to imagine a healthy future for our world without acknowledging the pivotal role of the United States in ensuring we realize it. The WHO has operated with the majority of its funding coming via the U.S. government throughout its 70-year history. We must recognize and respect the interconnected nature of our world, the relationships between countries and institutions, and the significant roles of member states in enabling such important institutions to function and deliver during these crucial times. We must prioritize unity and diplomacy at all levels.
COVID-19 is cruel in many ways. Many of us have been shaken by the loss of a loved one, made all the harder by separation enforced by lockdowns. But we cannot allow it to divide us, to pit us against one another—against countries, organizations and neighbors. If we allow that perspective to prevail, we will not only lose ourselves and experience greater isolation, we will also make ourselves more vulnerable. We must come together to manage this shared challenge, show solidarity as country and institutional leaders, advocates and allies, health workers and communities. We know, through hard-earned experience, that global cooperation is our only chance of success.
While many nations have attempted to build health security borders to combat the pandemic, COVID-19 is a stark reminder that humans are connected, and that what happens in one country can impact the everyday lives, social fabrics and economies of countries far away. Working individually does not shield us from the global framework in which we are operating – we are part of an interconnected world, and when we respond accordingly, we can more accurately and effectively combat our shared challenges.
Human connectivity holds power. The positive impact of our collective will to physically distance from one another alone shows what power we hold. In working together to promote unity, overcome global inequality and support measures to protect public health, we are striving to ensure that no one is left behind in our response to the pandemic.
Toyin Saraki is the founder and president of the Wellbeing Foundation Africa, the inaugural global goodwill ambassador for the International Confederation of Midwives and special adviser to the independent advisory group of the World Health Organization’s regional office for Africa.
The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.