United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres briefs reporters during a Group of Seven summit in Hiroshima, Japan on May 21, 2023.

United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres briefs reporters during a Group of Seven summit in Hiroshima, Japan on May 21, 2023.

(Photo: Ichiro Mae/United Nations)

War and Climate Crisis Threaten Global Progress on Human Health, Warns UN Chief

"We can return to the path of progress. We can realize our ambitions for health and well-being for all," said António Guterres. "But only if the world works together... despite the tensions straining relations between nations."

"Progress is in peril."

That was United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres' warning Sunday to the 76th World Health Assembly.

Over seven decades ago, he noted, "countries came together and affirmed some fundamental truths: that peace depends on health; that disease in one nation endangers all; and that achieving the greatest possible health for everyone, everywhere relies on cooperation."

Since the creation of the World Health Organization (WHO), Guterres continued, "human health has advanced dramatically: global life expectancy—up over 50%; infant mortality—down 60% in 30 years; smallpox—eradicated; and polio on the verge of extinction."

But now, "war and conflict threaten millions. The health of billions is endangered by the climate crisis. And the Covid-19 pandemic has stalled, and even reversed, progress in public health," the U.N. leader said in a video address kicking off the assembly.

"We can return to the path of progress. We can realize our ambitions for health and well-being for all. But only if the world works together. If we cooperate, despite the tensions straining relations between nations," he stressed.

Guterres called for "strengthening the independence, authority, and financing of the World Health Organization," and said that "it is vital to prepare for the health threats to come—from new pandemics to climate dangers—so that we prevent where we can, and respond fast and effectively where we cannot."

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus—who earlier this month declared Covid-19 over as a global health emergency—similarly urged international coordination during his welcome speech to the assembly. The agency leader said that "in 2020, I described Covid-19 as a long, dark tunnel. We have now come out the end of that tunnel."

"To be clear, Covid-19 is still with us, it still kills, it's still changing, and it still demands our attention," Tedros continued. The end of the emergency "is not just the end of a bad dream from which we have woken. We cannot simply carry on as we did before."

"This is a moment to look behind us and remember the darkness of the tunnel, and then to look forward, and to move forward in the light of the many painful lessons it has taught us. Chief among those lessons is that we can only face shared threats with a shared response," Tedros added. He stressed that the pandemic accord now being negotiated "must be a historic agreement to make a paradigm shift in global health security, recognizing that our fates are interwoven."

As the assembly—scheduled through May 30—got underway in Geneva, Switzerland, Guterres was in Hiroshima, Japan, for the Group of Seven (G7) summit, where he also underscored the importance of global cooperation while speaking to the press on Sunday.

"My message to G7 leaders is clear: While the economic picture is uncertain everywhere, rich countries cannot ignore the fact that more than half the world—the vast majority of countries—are suffering through a deep financial crisis," Guterres said. "The crushing economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, the climate crisis, Russia's invasion of Ukraine, unsustainable levels of debt, rising interest rates, and inflation are devastating developing and emerging economies."

"There is a systemic and unjust bias in global economic and financial frameworks in favor of rich countries," he declared, highlighting that "access to Covid-19 vaccines was deeply unfair" and "the recovery has been extremely unbalanced."

While the U.N. chief argued that "it's time to reform both the Security Council and the Bretton Woods institutions," referring to the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, he also said that "even within the present unfair global rules, more can and must be done to support developing economies."

G7 countries are "central to climate action," Guterres said, noting the need for "faster timelines to phase out fossil fuels and ramp up renewables," an end to dirty energy subsidies, and financial support for developing nations that are disproportionately bearing the brunt of a crisis largely created by the Global North.

As Common Dreams reported earlier Sunday, since G7 leaders on Saturday put out a communiqué addressing a wide range of topics, campaigners around the world have decried the statement's support for further investments in planet-heating gas, calling it "a blunt denial of the climate emergency."

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