Wed. Feb 24th, 2021

Statement by Dr Hans Henri P. Kluge, WHO Regional Director for Europe

142nd plenary session – European Committee of the Regions

4 February 2021, Copenhagen, Denmark

President Apostolos Tzitzikostas, Representatives of the Regions, Colleagues, Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am very happy to be here today, at the European Committee of the Regions, to both sign an agreement to continue the productive partnership between our two organizations as well as to discuss COVID-19.

In times like these, the unwavering support of the European Union and its institutions to the World Health Organization – building on the past, collaborating in the present, and planning for the future – is crucial.

I’d like to express my appreciation for the EU’s support in recent weeks to strengthening the International Health Regulations on which WHO bases much of its emergency preparedness and response work, as well as the key role that the EU has played in establishing the COVAX facility within the vaccine pillar of the Access to COVID-19 Tools ACT Accelerator.

EPI and vaccines

We are now more than one year into an unprecedented pandemic.  

To date, the Europe Region is the 2nd worst affected of all world regions, accounting for more than one-third of both reported cases and deaths globally.

Some 37 countries in the Region have started vaccinations, administering close to 30 million doses. The development and approval of safe, effective vaccines less than a year after the emergence of a new virus is a stunning scientific achievement.  

Let me be clear: COVID-19 vaccines are not a silver bullet that can stop this pandemic by themselves. But they will reduce the burden of disease and save lives.  

As predicted, the demand for vaccines is far greater than the supply, at this early stage. The sheer scale of vaccine rollout is enormous – and so are the challenges. Frustration due to an inconsistent flow of vaccines is understandable. Vaccine production and roll-out will take time.

The key here is solidarity. Producing sufficient doses of the vaccines depends on international cooperation: If countries come together through research, manufacturing capacity, procurement, and investment in delivery, unprecedented speed can be achieved.

The WHO has repeatedly called for action to ensure fair and equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines, a global public good. No one country should have access to more than it needs while other countries have limited or no supplies. This is why the COVAX facility is of such importance. A fair distribution of vaccines is the right thing to do; for moral, economic, and security reasons.  

That is why I call for patience and understanding.

COVID-19 and its impact

Although there is reason for hope in the form of vaccines, we are far from being out of the woods.

The impact of the pandemic is far-reaching and long-term. Its effect on mental health is felt everywhere, in every quarter of our society.

COVID-19 has exacerbated risks of food insecurity and scarcity, while unhealthy diets have added to the burden of noncommunicable diseases.

The pandemic has also severely disrupted health services and forced national health systems to reallocate resources.

Today, on World Cancer Day, it is concerning to acknowledge that 1 in 3 countries in the European Region have partially or completely disrupted cancer services, directly impacting the chances of cure or survival for hundreds of thousands of cancer patients.

Regions

What we have seen over the past months in our cities and towns, where two-thirds of the population of the European Region lives, is that strong local governance is a factor behind successful pandemic mitigation.

Local governments in the Europe Region have been and still are at the forefront of curtailing the pandemic.

Cities are epicenters in this emergency; not only in terms of community- and country-wide transmission, but also as points of health care, and travel and trade hubs. Cities are the closest level of government to people. And they are also key to sharing experiences and fighting misinformation, as service providers and central elements of a sustainable future.

New MoU

The findings of a Pan-European Commission on Health Sustainable Development, led by former European Commissioner Mario Monti, will be presented later this year. The Commission is tasked with rethinking policy priorities in the light of pandemics.  

Current challenges call for rethinking our priorities and finding new ways of working. The European Region is fortunate to have already made strides in that direction, seeking to achieve equity in health, and understanding the critical relevance of its social, economic and environmental determinants.  

Today, WHO/Europe and the Committee of the Regions will be renewing their partnership by signing a new Memorandum of Understanding as well as an accompanying action plan, based on the European Programme of Work, 2020–2025 – “United Action for Better Health in Europe” (EPW). The political priorities of the European Committee of the Regions in 2020–2025, its annual work programmes and the new European Commission Programme for Health 2021–2027, form the bedrock on which our partnership lies.  

This is a significant milestone towards bringing our work in line with our targets.  

Our partnership is about:

  • meeting people’s expectations of their governments to secure universal health care without financial hardship;
  • making the most of the knowledge and governance of 1 million local and regional European politicians in terms of health in their constituency; and
  • a robust post-COVID-19 recovery with resilient health systems and strong primary health care for thriving communities.

Closing

I hope that I can count on the full involvement of the CoR in WHO’s flagship initiatives: the Mental Health Coalition; Empowerment through Digital Health; the European Immunization Agenda 2030; and Healthier behaviours, incorporating behavioural and cultural insights.

I would like to thank the CoR for its participation at last September’s session of the WHO Regional Committee for Europe, with Member Birgitta Sacredeus, underlining the role of local regional authorities in the fight against COVID-19. And let me also thank the CoR for lending its strong voice to the COVID-19 vaccination campaign.  

Finally, let me express my thanks to President Tzitzikostas and our friends at the European Committee of the Regions for making this agreement a reality. With this good will and commitment, I look forward to bringing our common vision of equitable health for all in the European Region to life.

Thank you.

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