WHO Director-General's keynote speech at the 138th International Olympic Committee Session

WHO Director-General's keynote speech at the 138th International Olympic Committee Session

21 July 2021
  • I have come this time – to this global mountaintop – with a message for the world’s people to hear. Our focus as a world united must be on doing everything we can to triumph over the pandemic, with determination, dedication and discipline. We are not in a race against each other; we are in a race against the virus.  
  • The global failure to share vaccines, tests, and treatments – including oxygen – is fuelling a two-track pandemic: the haves are opening up, while the have-nots are locking down. The longer this discrepancy persists, the longer the pandemic will drag on, and so will the social and economic turmoil it brings.  
  • I have called for a massive global push to vaccinate at least 10% of the population of every country by September, at least 40% by the end of the year, and 70% by mid-next year. If we can reach those targets, we can not only end the pandemic, we can also reboot the global economy. 
  • The COVID-19 pandemic has taught us all many painful but important lessons. One of the most important is that when health is at risk, everything is at risk. That’s why WHO’s top priority is universal health coverage. Our vision is a world in which all people can access the health services they need, where and when they need them, without facing financial hardship. And indeed, Japan is a global leader in universal health coverage, and a perfect example of its benefits.  
  • I am often asked when the pandemic will end. My answer is equally simple: the pandemic will end when the world chooses to end it. We have the tools to prevent transmission, and save lives. Our common goal must be to vaccinate 70% of the population of every country by the middle of next year.


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President Bach,

Your Royal Highnesses, Excellencies, distinguished guests, dear colleagues and friends,

Ohayō gozaimasu.

Nihon ga, sekai ni, yūki oh, ataeru, Tokyo 2020 kaisai ni, keyee toh, kansha oh, mōshi agemasu.

Good morning.

I would like to thank and pay respect to Prime Minister Suga, and the government and people of Japan for hosting the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games – sporting events that give hope to the world.

I would also like to thank President Bach and the International Olympic Committee for the great privilege of addressing this session. Thank you so much, my friend Thomas.

More than any other event, the Olympics have the power to bring the world together; to inspire; to show what is possible.

And more than any other event, they command the attention of the world’s people.

And that is why I have come. As you may know, I have been invited to the Olympic Games before, but have never been able to attend.

I have come this time – to this global mountaintop – with a message for the world’s people to hear.

In fact, I have come to answer a question.

It’s a question I am often asked, and which the people of the world are asking: when will this pandemic end?

Indeed, the COVID-19 pandemic has asked us many questions: About ourselves; and about our world.

The pandemic is a test. And the world is failing.

More than 4 million people have died, and more continue to die. Already this year, the number of deaths is more than double last year’s total.

In the time it takes me to make these remarks, more than 100 people will lose their lives to COVID-19.

And by the time the Olympic flame is extinguished on the 8th of August, more than 100,000 more people will perish.

Millions of survivors continue to suffer from the long-term health consequences of COVID-19, which we are still learning about.

The people of the world are sick and tired:

Sick of the virus;

Sick of the lives and livelihoods it has taken;

Sick of the suffering it has caused;

Sick of the restrictions and disruptions to their lives;

Sick of the turmoil it has caused to economies and societies;

Sick of the dark clouds it has cast over our futures.

And yet, 19 months into the pandemic, and seven months since the first vaccines were approved, we are now in the early stages of another wave of infections and deaths. This is tragic.

How can this be? Weren’t vaccines meant to douse the flames of the pandemic?

Yes, and in countries with the most vaccines, they are helping to do that.

But here’s the thing about an inferno: if you hose only one part of it, the rest will keep burning. And the embers of one fire can easily spark another even more ferocious blaze somewhere else.

The threat is not over anywhere until it’s over everywhere.

Anyone who thinks the pandemic is over because it’s over where they live is living in a fool’s paradise.

Vaccines are powerful and essential tools. But the world has not used them well.

Instead of being deployed widely to quell the pandemic on all fronts, they have been concentrated in the hands and arms of the lucky few; deployed to protect the world’s most privileged people, including those at lowest risk of severe disease, while the most vulnerable remain unprotected.

More than three-and-a-half billion vaccine doses have now been administered globally, and more than one in four people have received at least one vaccine dose.

On the surface, that’s good news. But it masks a horrifying injustice.

75% of vaccines have been administered in just 10 countries. In low income countries, only 1% of people have received at least one dose, compared with more than half of people in high-income countries.

Some of the richest countries are now talking about third booster shots for their populations, while health-workers, older people and other vulnerable groups in the rest of the world continue to go without.

The global failure to share vaccines, tests, and treatments – including oxygen – is fuelling a two-track pandemic: the haves are opening up, while the have-nots are locking down.

This is not just a moral outrage; it’s also epidemiologically and economically self-defeating.

The longer this discrepancy persists, the longer the pandemic will drag on, and so will the social and economic turmoil it brings.

The more transmission, the more variants will emerge with the potential to be even more dangerous than the Delta variant that is causing such devastation now.

And the more variants, the higher the likelihood that one of them will evade vaccines and take us all back to square one.

None of us is safe until all of us are safe.

The tragedy of this pandemic is that it could have been under control by now, if vaccines had been allocated more equitably.

The distortion in the manufacturing and distribution of vaccines has exposed and amplified the searing inequalities that have stained human history for aeons, and which imperil our future.

Together with the heads of the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the World Trade Organization, I have called for a massive global push to vaccinate at least 10% of the population of every country by September, at least 40% by the end of this year, and 70% by mid-next year.

If we can reach those targets, we can not only end the pandemic, we can also reboot the global economy.

But as Japan and many of its neighbours know well, vaccines are not the only effective tool.

Many countries have proven, and are proving, that this virus can be controlled with the right combination of public health and social measures, if they are applied in a careful and consistent way.

I mean proven public health tools like rational testing, rigorous contact tracing, supportive quarantine and compassionate care.

I mean proven individual measures, like avoiding crowds, physical distancing, wearing masks, doing things outdoors as much as possible, opening doors and windows, and cleaning hands.

Each of these measures can be the difference between life and death, in every situation:

Going to work; going shopping; a small gathering of friends; a conference; a concert; and the Olympic Games.

In the 125-year history of the modern games, they have been held in the shadow of war, economic crisis and geopolitical turmoil. No one knows better than you.

But never before have they been organised in the shadow of a pandemic.

And although COVID-19 might have postponed the games, it has not defeated them.

I recognize the plans and precautions and sacrifices that the IOC, the Tokyo Organising Committee, the government and people of Japan, the teams and athletes have taken to make these games as safe as possible.

WHO is pleased to have played our part by providing technical advice to the IOC and Japan during your preparations.

Over the next two weeks, and for the Paralympic Games next month, those plans and precautions will be put to the test. It is my sincerest hope that they succeed – not only for the sake of the games themselves, and the safety of the athletes, trainers and officials – but as a demonstration of what is possible with the right plans and the right measures.

There is no zero risk in life; there is only more risk, or less risk. And you have done your best.

In the words of the Japanese proverb, ishibashi o tataite wataru – “knock on a stone bridge before crossing it” – which means that although something might seem safe, it pays to be sure.

The choices we all make – as governments, organizations and individuals – either increase risk or decrease risk, but they never eliminate it completely.

The mark of success in the coming fortnight is not zero cases, and I know that some cases have already been detected.

The mark of success is making sure that any cases are identified, isolated, traced and cared for as quickly as possible, and onward transmission is interrupted. That is the mark of success for every country. The mark of success is not zero risk; there is not zero risk in anything, forget about this very complicated one.

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The COVID-19 pandemic has taught us all many painful but important lessons.

One of the most important is that when health is at risk, everything is at risk.

It has shown us that health is not an optional extra; it’s not a luxury for those who can afford it; it’s not a reward for development; it’s the foundation of social, economic and political stability.

That’s why WHO’s top priority is universal health coverage. Our vision is a world in which all people can access the health services they need, where and when they need them, without facing financial hardship.

And indeed, Japan is a global leader in universal health coverage, and a perfect example of its benefits.

The last time I was in Tokyo was in 2017, for the Universal Health Coverage Forum, with former Prime Minister Abe.

At that meeting, an artist called Maaya Wakasugi painted two paintings in Japanese calligraphy. One says “Health for All” in English, and the other has the Japanese character that can mean both health and well-being.

I liked them so much, I took them back to Geneva, and they are now outside my office.

Japan invested in health not after it had become a global economic powerhouse.

It knew that the task of building a nation would require investments not only in new infrastructure, but in human capital; in the health of its people.

Today, Japan has the world’s longest life expectancy and its third-largest economy.

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Of course, sport and all forms of physical activity are essential for good health.

Sport and physical activity can help to prevent and manage many noncommunicable diseases, including cancer and diabetes, and reduce the symptoms of depression and anxiety.

By its very nature, sport is about participation, bringing individuals, communities and countries together, and bridging cultural, ethnic and national divides.
 
It promotes tolerance and respect, and empowers women and young people.

We know that sport has an important role in achieving the health targets of the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, and particularly the goal of increasing physical activity by 15% over the next decade.

That’s why last year I was honoured to sign a Memorandum of Understanding with Thomas, as he indicated earlier, identifying several areas in which WHO and the IOC will work more closely together to promote health and sport.

And I’m delighted to announce that tomorrow I will sign a new Memorandum of Understanding with Mr Andrew Parsons, the President of the International Paralympic Committee.

WHO also has an MOU with FIFA, and we hope to work with many more sporting federations to promote health, to protect health, to communicate about health through sport, and to pursue the Olympic values of excellence, friendship and respect.

Those values are more important now than ever, and each of them is relevant to our fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.

The excellence, friendship and respect we will see displayed in the athletic arena during the Olympic and Paralympic Games must become a symbol of what is possible in every arena;

Of what humans are capable of, with the right conditions and the right preparation.

I think of the Ethiopian Abebe Bikila, the first black African Olympic gold medallist, who won gold in the marathon at the 1960 Games in Rome while running barefoot, and again at the 1964 Games here in Tokyo – both in record time. You know Abebe Bikila inspired many Italians and Japanese. I hope to meet some Japanese who were inspired by Abebe Bikila to run.

In the next fortnight, the focus of the athletes will be on producing their best performances to triumph for themselves and their nations.

Success at these Games requires speed, strength and skill. But it also requires determination, dedication and discipline.

The same is true for us. Our focus as a world united must be on doing everything we can to triumph over the pandemic, with determination, dedication and discipline.

We are not in a race against each other; we are in a race against the virus, a very dangerous virus.

The pandemic is a severe health crisis. But it’s much more than that.

It’s more than a test of science; it’s a test of character.

At the beginning of my remarks, I said that I am often asked when the pandemic will end. This is everybody’s question.

My answer is equally simple: the pandemic will end when the world chooses to end it. It’s in our hands.

We have all the tools we need: we can prevent this disease, we can test for it, and we can treat it.

That’s more than we have for many other diseases that have been around much longer, and which pose more complex and as-yet unsolved scientific and medical challenges: there’s no vaccine for HIV; no cure for Alzheimer’s disease; no simple test for all forms of tuberculosis – the list is very, very long.

Not so for COVID-19. This is a pandemic whose course is very much in our control. We have the tools to prevent transmission, and save lives.

We can choose to end the pandemic.

Our common goal must be to vaccinate 70% of the population of every country by the middle of next year.

Achieving it will take commitment, preparation and skill. But the prize is lives saved and a sustainable global recovery.

Ending the pandemic is a choice all of us can make. And there is something all of us can do: governments, companies, civil society and the people of the world.

The reason why we’re not ending is the lack of real political commitment. It’s very disappointing that we’re not able to end it while we have all the tools at hands. And I have a message to four groups.

First, governments.

Every government must commit to protecting its people with a tailored and consistent set of public health and social measures.

There are no short cuts. If we throw caution to the wind, it will blow back in our faces.

The governments of G20 countries, in particular, must show collective leadership to ensure the urgent scale-up and deployment of the tools needed to save lives. They have all the means to do this.

I thank Japan for co-hosting the COVAX AMC Summit last month, and for its generosity in contributing 1 billion U.S. dollars to the COVAX Facility.

This is the kind of leadership we need.

If they choose to, the world’s leading economies could bring the pandemic under control globally in a matter of months by sharing doses through COVAX, funding the ACT Accelerator, and incentivizing manufacturers to do whatever it takes to scale up production.

If nations can mobilize the power of industry for war, why can they not do the same to defeat this common enemy? And everybody knows that investment in COVID now is a fraction of what is invested in defense to kill people.

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Second, companies.

The companies that make vaccines, tests and treatments have given the world powerful tools, and a source of hope.

But they too have a social responsibility to make sure those tools are available to everyone who needs them, everywhere.

Most vaccines were developed with public funds.

Many companies have made commitments to sharing doses, but many of those commitments are yet to be fulfilled.

To reach our target of vaccinating 70% of the population of every country by the middle of next year, we need 11 billion vaccines.

That will require an urgent and dramatic scale-up in production. 2023 or later will be far too late. There are people who say that.

There are many ways to increase production, including by sharing know-how and technology with other companies with production capacity, or by waiving intellectual property rights on certain products for a certain time.

WHO values the role of the private sector in the pandemic and in many areas of health. The intellectual property system plays a vital role in fostering innovation of new tools to save lives.

But this is an unprecedented crisis that demands unprecedented action. With so many lives on the line, profits and patents must come second.

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Third, civil society.

So many civil society organizations have made such an incredible contribution.

I particularly appreciate the alliance of more than 60 civil society organizations who have joined forces to advocate for vaccine equity. Thank you for everything you’ve done, and please keep going. Your voices must continue to be heard. And push so we can realise the 70% by the middle of next year with your support, and end the pandemic.

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And fourth, the people of the world.

As individuals, we have the power to change the course of this pandemic, with our choices, and our voices.

Every day, the choices we make as individuals can be the difference between life and death, like staying at home, keeping your distance from others, wearing a mask, opening a window and cleaning your hands.

These simple measures could save your life, or the life of someone else - in your family, your community, or on the other side of the world.

In our global village, our lives are intertwined, even with those we will never meet.

And when the people speak with one voice, governments and companies listen.

I call on the people of the world to speak up for vaccine equity. Tell your government that sharing is not charity; it’s enlightened self-interest. When they invest in protecting others, they invest in protecting you.

All of us – governments, companies, civil society, individuals, the IOC – can fight the infodemic that deprives people of life-saving information and peddles deadly lies.

And any individual, organization or business can contribute to saving the lives of others by making a donation to the WHO Foundation’s Solidarity Response Fund.

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My friends,

The Olympic Games bring the nations of the world together in competition, as athletes strive to fulfil the Olympic motto of faster, higher, stronger – together.

That motto applies equally to our struggle against the defining crisis of our time:

We must be faster in distributing vaccines all over the world;

We must aim higher – at vaccinating 70% of the population of all countries by the middle of next year:

We must be stronger, in removing every barrier that stands in our way to expand production;

And we must do it all together, in solidarity.

But beyond competition;

Beyond medals and records,

The Games bring the nations of the world together in celebration:

A celebration of sport;

A celebration of health;

A celebration of excellence, a celebration of friendship and respect.

But ultimately, they are a celebration of something even more important; of something that our world needs now, more than ever:

A celebration of hope.

The celebrations may be more muted this year, but the message of hope is all the more important.

May these Games be the moment that unites the world, and ignites the solidarity and determination we need to end the pandemic together, by vaccinating 70% of the population of every country by the middle of next year.

May the message of hope resound from Tokyo around the world in every nation, every village, and every heart.

May the Olympic torch be a symbol of hope that traverses the planet.

And may the rays of hope from this land of the rising sun illuminate a new dawn for a world that is healthier, safer and fairer.

Thank you so much. Arigato gozaimasu.