Union Health Minister Harsh Vardhan took charge as the chairman of the WHO Executive Board on Friday and asserted that a worldwide crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the need for strengthening global partnerships to re-energise investment in global public health.
Vardhan's elevation to the chairmanship of the 34-member World Health Organisation (WHO) Executive Board comes amid growing calls, including by United States President Donald Trump, to investigate how coronavirus originated in China's Wuhan city and subsequent action by Beijing.
Tensions are running high within the UN health body after Trump warned WHO that he would reconsider America's membership and 'permanently freeze' the body's funding if it does not demonstrate its 'independence' from China in the next 30 days.
Vardhan, who succeeded Dr Hiroki Nakatani from Japan, paid tribute to the lakhs of people who have lost their lives due to the global COVID-19 pandemic and also requested all dignitaries present on the occasion to give a standing ovation to all the frontline health workers and other 'COVID warriors by saluting their dignity, determination and dedication'.
Vardhan was elected as the Chair of the Executive Board of World Health Organization for the year 2020-21 during the 147th session of the board in a meeting that was held virtually.
The proposal to appoint India's nominee to the executive board was signed by the 194-nation World Health Assembly on Tuesday.
At the 72nd Regional Committee Session of WHO South-East Asia in September 2019, member states had nominated India to be member of the WHO Executive Board from the Region to replace Sri Lanka whose term expired in May 2020 and also to lead 147th and 148th Sessions of the Executive Board as Chairperson.
Congratulating Vardhan, Regional Director for WHO South-East Asia Poonam Khetrapal Singh, said, "Dr Harsh Vardhan has assumed this post at a very challenging time. I wish him all the best in steering the executive board as it addresses this defining pandemic and other public health issues."
"Dr Vardhan has a rich experience in public health. He is the pioneer of India's successful pulse polio programme and has been in the forefront in the fight against tobacco and many other issues. The world can now gain from his expertise and experience," she said.
The other countries from WHO South-East Asia Region in the Executive Board are Bangladesh (2019-2022) and Indonesia (2018-2021).
"I feel deeply honoured to have the trust and faith of all of you. India and all my countrymen, too, feel privileged that this honour has been bestowed upon us," Vardhan said after assuming the charge.
Noting that COVID-19 is a great human tragedy and the next two decades may see many such challenges, he said, "All these challenges demand a shared response, as these are shared threats requiring a shared responsibility to act."
"While this is the core philosophy of our alliance of member nations that comprise WHO, however, it needs a greater degree of shared idealism of nations."
"The pandemic has made humanity acutely aware of the consequences of ignoring the strengthening and preparedness of our healthcare systems.
"In such times of global crisis, risk management and mitigation would require further strengthening of global partnerships to re-energise interest and investment in global public health," Vardhan said.
Sharing India's experience in combating COVID-19, he said the nation has only 3 per cent mortality rate and with 1.35 billion people, there are only 0.1 million COVID-19 cases.
"The recovery rate is above 40 per cent and the doubling rate is 13 days."
As the new Chair of the WHO Executive Board, Vardhan underlined the need for higher commitments in respect of diseases that have plagued humankind for centuries, collaborations for supplementing each other by pooling in global resources, an aggressive roadmap to curtail deaths from diseases that can be eliminated, a fresh roadmap to address global shortages of medicines and vaccines, and the need for reforms.
"I'm sure that constant engagement with member states and other stakeholders will reinforce reforms and help accelerate progress towards achieving sustainable development goals and universal health coverage with the most productive, efficient and targeted utilization of resources," he said.
"I will put myself to work to realise the collective vision of our organisation, to build the collective capacity of all our member nations and also build a heroic collective leadership."
Reminiscing his long-standing association with WHO, Vardhan expressed his gratitude for WHO's strong support in India's fight against Polio.
At the Executive Board meeting in May 2021, he will hand over to the next Chair from another WHO Region. However, he will continue to be a member of the Executive Board till 2023.
Vardhan has also been a member of several prestigious WHO committees like Strategic Advisory Group of Experts and the Global Technical Consultative Group on Polio Eradication. He has also served as an advisor to WHO.
The Executive Board comprises 34 individuals, technically qualified in the field of health, each one designated by a member-state elected to do so by the World Health Assembly. Member States are elected for three-year terms.
The main functions of the executive board are to give effect to the decisions and policies of the Health Assembly, to advise it and generally to facilitate its work.