Health ministers reach consensus on actions to address COVID-19
Jamaica’s Minister of Health and Wellness Dr Christopher Tufton chairs the Commonwealth Health Ministers Meeting in London on Thursday. Flanking him are Dr Ruth Kattumuri (left), senior director for the Economic, Youth and Sustainable Development Directorate with the Commonwealth Secretariat; and Patricia Scotland, Commonwealth secretary general.

LONDON, England (CMC) – Health ministers from the Commonwealth concluded their annual meeting on Thursday, united on a post-COVID-19 health agenda that includes collaboration on several key issues including vaccine equity, increasing investment in health to strengthen the resilience of health systems, and advancing Universal Health Coverage (UHC) goals.

In a joint statement, they outlined key priorities in tackling the complex health challenges following the COVID-19 pandemic.

It follows a two-day virtual high-level meeting, convened under the chairmanship of Jamaica’s Minister of Health and Wellness Dr Christopher Tufton, where ministers assessed the current health challenges in the Commonwealth, shared their national and regional experiences and discussed effective solutions and strategies to build stronger, sustainable and resilient health systems capable of handling future health emergencies.

The theme of this year’s meeting, which was held virtually, was ‘The Road to COVID-19 Recovery: “Lessons Learnt for Building Health System Resilience to advance UHC and Health Security in the Commonwealth’.

In her closing remarks, Commonwealth Secretary General Patricia Scotland said: “Now more than ever, we need to collaborate with unity of purpose advocating for post-COVID recovery thinking and planning built on principles of equity, fairness, inclusivity, and sustainability.

“The challenges before us can be resolved if we commit to meaningfully working together. This is the sole spirit of the Commonwealth, the belief that by cooperating and supporting each other we achieve more, faster, more effectively, and efficiently,” Scotland said.

“As we look towards [the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting], we can be united in the recognition that further investment is urgently required to ensure our health systems can deal with short- and long-term shocks and outbreaks.”

As well as being a unique threat, the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the inherent weaknesses and inequities of health systems across the Commonwealth, especially in the distribution of vaccines.

According to data from the World Health Organization (WHO), globally, more than 11 billion vaccine doses have been administered. Meanwhile, in the Commonwealth, only 1.3 billion people have been fully vaccinated and 40 per cent of the population of the Commonwealth are yet to receive a single dose. And in some African countries, vaccination rates are less than 15 per cent.

In this sense, ministers committed to working together to implement robust national responses to overcome the current pandemic and prepare for and prevent future pandemics. They welcomed the signing of a memorandum of understanding with WHO, which will work to support accelerating the end of the COVID-19 pandemic, addressing vaccine inequity, strengthening digital health systems, and advancing Universal Health Coverage and global health security.

Ministers also recognised the urgent need to increase and accelerate COVID-19 vaccination equity and accessibility and agreed to work together to advance the WHO goal of vaccinating 70 per cent of the population in each country by mid-2022.

Speaking earlier on the need for public health leadership, Dr Tufton said: “We must admit that COVID-19 has revealed many significant gaps in public health leadership across different scales – global, regional, or national. These gaps have been especially apparent in matters related to vaccination, vaccine nationalism, and the failure of multilateralism, in general.”

The Jamaican health minister stressed that equity in health care is a global development imperative and none of the Commonwealth’s 54 members can feel a sense of security and safety if other countries are being left behind.

“If countries are left behind, as we have seen with COVID-19, there is likely to be a delay in recovery for all countries. This issue will require bold leadership and visionary, purposeful action in order to wrestle with the instinctive self-preserving actions of the few,” he said.

Recognising that health system resilience is an essential pillar to support progress towards UHC and health security, there was consensus in strongly encouraging governments to urgently increase investment in health, including human resourcing, to strengthen the resilience of health systems and the COVID-19 pandemic response and recovery plans.

They further acknowledged the work currently being undertaken in international fora to strengthen global health architecture, in particular, the work on prevention and response of future pandemics. Through this, ministers acknowledged that there will be a stronger and more inclusive health emergency preparedness, response, and resilience architecture.

They also reaffirmed their commitment to work together to maintain the pre-COVID-19 pandemic gains related to sexual and reproductive health services (SRHS), HIV and AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria, and other vector-borne diseases, poliomyelitis, and neglected tropical diseases.

With regards to cervical cancer elimination, ministers reaffirmed their commitment to taking necessary steps to ensure that by 2025 all girls in the Commonwealth will have access to the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine by age 13.

On research, innovation, and digital technology, ministers acknowledged the fact that digital technology tools are a key enabler to advancing primary health-care services and that there is an opportunity to further advance digital health capacity in the Commonwealth. To that end, ministers agreed to explore how Commonwealth countries can foster stronger cooperation and exchange knowledge on issues such as digital health governance, interoperability, and digital technologies.

In addition to health ministers, the meeting which came ahead of the 75th World Health Assembly and the 2022 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, included participation by representatives from Commonwealth health professionals, civil society, and development partners, as well as international and regional organisations such as the WHO, Africa CDC, The Global Fund and observers.

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