Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO)

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted our world. The manner in which we conduct ourselves during this crisis, whether we learn lessons from it, and how we chose to build back better, is up to us.

Since the novel coronavirus took hold more than nine month ago, lives and livelihoods have been lost and economies and societies have been upended. The pandemic has exposed and exploited our political fault lines and inequalities, and the gaps in our health systems. The impacts go far beyond the suffering caused by the virus itself, with major disruptions to services for global hunger, immunization, noncommunicable diseases, family planning and more. 

It has never been clearer that health is a political and economic choice. In the past 20 years, countries have invested heavily in preparing for terrorist attacks, but relatively little in preparing for the attack of a virus – which, as the pandemic has proven, can be far more deadly, disruptive, and costly.

Thanks to advances in biology, science and technology, we have been able to greatly accelerate the research and development for vaccines, diagnostics and therapeutics for COVID-19. No disease in history has benefited from such rapid research.

But the greatest challenge we face now is not scientific or technical. We face a test of our character. Can countries come together in solidarity to share the fruits of research? Or will misguided nationalism hobble our response? 

In April, WHO, the European Commission and multiple other partners launched The Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator, to catalyse the development and equitable distribution of vaccines, diagnostics and therapeutics.

Yet, even as we marshal our forces to bring this pandemic to an end, we must also work with equal urgency to strengthen our health systems and public health infrastructure so that the world is never again blindsided by a health emergency. A strong health system is a resilient health system.

The lessons so far are clear.

The first is that health is not a luxury item for those who can afford it; it is a necessity, a human right and the foundation of social, economic and political stability. The second is that there has never been a greater need for global cooperation and to confront a global threat. A coherent international response is key.

And the third is that the time to prepare for emergencies is before they occur. COVID-19 has demonstrated that the world was not prepared. Even some of the most advanced societies and economies have been overwhelmed. While many countries put enormous resources into sophisticated medical care, too many also neglect their basic public health systems. We are paying the price for that now.

Investments in disease surveillance and monitoring, health promotion, water, sanitation and hygiene, educating and empowering communities and building a strong health workforce are essential for building resilient public health systems.

The absence of any one of these leaves communities vulnerable and undermines the timely response necessary to contain outbreaks. 

Some countries are already showing the way. The German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, has announced that Germany will invest €4 billion by 2026 to strengthen its public health system.

Ultimately, the best defence against the impact of outbreaks and other health emergencies is a strong health system, built on primary health care with an emphasis on promoting health and preventing disease.

That’s why WHO’s top three priorities are healthier populations, universal health coverage and health security. 

This will not be the last pandemic or global health emergency we will face. When the next one comes, the world must be ready. Part of every country’s commitment to build back better must therefore be to public health, as an investment in a healthier and safer future.

My best wishes for a productive and inspiring Summit.