Address by Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of World Health Organization, at Tsinghua SEM Commencement 2020
June 22, 2020
Dean BAI Chong-En, Distinguished guests, dear colleagues and friends,
Greetings to all 2020 graduates of the Tsinghua University School of Economics and Management, and to all faculty, family, and friends.
Last week I had the honour of speaking to students graduating from the City University of New York, and today I’m honoured to be speaking to you. Like them, you are entering the world of work full of hopes and dreams for the future. Like them, you are embarking on your careers in an uncertain world. Like them, we look to you to build the world our children and grandchildren will inherit.
Unfortunately, COVID-19 has robbed you of the opportunity to celebrate your graduation together. This is just one of the many things the pandemic has taken from us. It has also robbed us of people we love. But of course, the pandemic is much more than a health crisis. It has exposed the political divisions and the social and economic inequalities of our world. Millions of jobs have been lost. The global economy is headed for its sharpest contraction since the Great Depression. For all the economic, military and technological might of nations, our world has been thrown into turmoil by a microscopic microbe.
The world spends trillions of dollars preparing for a terrorist attack, but historically has spent relatively little preparing for the attack of a virus, which as we are now seeing, can be far more deadly and far more damaging economically, politically and socially. All countries have been affected, rich and poor, large and small. The pandemic will shape the world for decades to come – and it will shape your lives and careers too. COVID-19 is teaching us many lessons. Chief among them is that health is not a luxury item. It’s the foundation of social and economic development.
WHO was founded in 1948 on the conviction that health is a human right for all people, not a privilege for those who can afford it. More than 70 years later, that conviction still drives everything we do. We believe no one should get sick and die simply because they are poor. We believe no family should have to choose between poverty and illness. We believe no child should die from a disease that in most countries can be easily prevented with a vaccine. We believe in a world in which all people can access the health services they need, without facing financial hardship.
That’s why we have made universal health coverage WHO’s top priority. This is a vision that all countries have agreed to in the Sustainable Development Goals. And it’s a vision that the world’s leaders endorsed in the historic political declaration on universal health coverage at last year’s United Nations General Assembly. But the world is a long way from that vision. Unless we change course, up to 5 billion people will still lack access to some essential health services in 2030. Even when those services are available, using them can spell financial disaster for millions of people. The human toll of this injustice is appalling enough. But the lack of access to affordable, quality health care is also a brake on social and economic development, and a threat to global health security. It keeps people bogged down in poverty, saps productivity and drains hope.
Universal health coverage is therefore not just a moral imperative, it’s an economic imperative. It’s an investment, not a cost. Consider this: the world spends 7.5 trillion U.S. dollars on health each year – almost 10 percent of global GDP. We need to ask ourselves: are we getting value for money? WHO believes the answer is: no. Too many countries spend too much of their health budget on managing diseases in hospitals – where the costs are higher and the outcomes are often worse – instead of promoting health and preventing disease at the primary health care level.
Countries spend billions treating lung cancer instead of stopping the scourge of tobacco; Treating obesity, diabetes and heart disease instead of promoting healthy diets; treating injuries instead of making roads safer; Treating depression instead of promoting mental health. All countries must make a crucial shift – to focus on promoting and protecting health, rather than only treating disease.
To do that, we must address the reasons people get sick and die that lie outside the health sector, in the air people breathe, the food they eat, the water they drink, their housing, education, income, social status, and so on. It’s no accident that in many countries, the groups hit hardest by COVID-19 are those with the least access to essential health services. Major demographic trends like urbanization, migration and ageing populations, and the existential threat of climate change, also pose significant challenges for human health.
Addressing these determinants of health will require fundamental changes in our approach to urban planning, energy, transport, trade and commerce – the very fields in which you will work. So although you are not graduating as public health professionals, whatever you do will nonetheless have an impact on public health. This is the great challenge of our time. But it’s also the opportunity of our time, because the countries that take a whole-of-government and whole-of-society approach to health will not only have healthier populations; they will have healthier economies and societies.
Even as we continue to fight an escalating pandemic, we must also be asking what sort of recovery we want. The pandemic has given us a glimpse of the world as it could be. The question is, will we just go back to the way things were? We cannot afford to pump carbon dioxide into the atmosphere at the same rate and still breathe clean air. We must choose.
We cannot afford to eat and drink whatever we want and not expect to develop diabetes, hypertension, heart disease or cancer. We must choose. We cannot afford ever-deepening inequalities, and expect continued prosperity. We must choose.
Whatever lessons there are to learn from this pandemic, the greatest failing would be to not learn from them and to leave the world in the same vulnerable state it was before. If there is anything positive to come from this, it must be a healthier, safer, fairer and more resilient world, built on the foundation of equity and solidarity.
Last century, the horrors of two world wars gave birth to the realization that international cooperation is preferable to international conflict. My hope is that the suffering the world is now enduring will not be in vain. My hope is that the defining crisis of our age will likewise remind all people that the best way forward – the only way forward – is together.
You are embarking on your professional life at an extraordinary time, in a world that has changed dramatically in just a few short months. As graduates of the Tsinghua University School of Economics and Management, you will play an important role in the global recovery, wherever your careers take you, in either the public or private sectors.
The pandemic is teaching us valuable lessons that may be as important as anything you have learned in your studies. It’s reminding us that we are one humanity. We share the same planet, the same DNA, the same hopes, dreams and fears. It’s reminding us that none of us are safe until all of us are safe; that a healthier world is a safer world; and that health is not a cost, it’s an investment in our common future. You all have a part to play in creating that future, in whichever field you work.
Today I ask that wherever your careers take you, you work as ambassadors for global solidarity and our shared humanity; ambassadors for the human race.
I wish you every success.
Thank you very much.