Remarks by Dr Takeshi Kasai, WHO Regional Director for the Western Pacific, at the Regional Committee virtual press conference

6 October 2020

Good afternoon to the journalists who have joined us today, and people across the Region who are watching online.

As you may know, the Western Pacific Region is one the six WHO regions, and it is home to around 1.9 billion people.

A characteristic of this Region is its diversity. It includes the world’s biggest country and the smallest. It has highly developed countries, fast-growing economies, and small, sparsely-populated island states. This Region is dynamically changing, with both rapid urbanization and the world’s fastest ageing population.

The Regional Committee taking place this week is our highest governing body. It’s where ministers of health and senior officials come together once a year to decide on policy relevant in this Region, and decide how WHO should focus its support to countries and they hold us accountable for our performance.

This year, we’re organizing the Regional Committee virtually for the first time in our history.

At my first Regional Committee as Regional Director last October, ministers and senior officials adopted a document called For the Future: Towards the healthiest and safest region, which identified four priorities, of which one was health security.

But none of us could have imagined how quickly that future would arrive. COVID-19 is testing all our health systems, our capacity to get people the information they need to protect themselves, and the resilience of societies and economies.

Today, I reported to the ministers on WHO’s actions to respond to COVID-19 in this Region since 31 December, while driving forward our collective vision to make the Western Pacific the healthiest and safest region. For the details, I refer you to the speech I gave to the Regional Committee this morning.

I’d now like to hand over to Dr Babatunde Olowokure, our Regional Emergencies Director, to give an update on the current COVID-19 situation in the Region.

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Thank you very much, Babatunde.

Now I’d now like to spend a few minutes on three of the important issues being addressed by Member States at the Regional Committee this week.

First, is the immunization. Member States are going to consider a Strategic Framework to strengthen and expand immunization systems, and shore-up preparedness for public health emergency related to vaccine-preventable diseases.

Vaccines are one of the safest and most effective tools to fight diseases. But children in high-risk communities in the Region are still affected by outbreaks of ‘old’ diseases like measles.

There are also new vaccines, for example against cervical cancer, pneumococcal disease and seasonal flu, and we need to make sure we’re reaching the adolescents and older people who need them.

We also need to make sure our immunization systems are resilient enough to withstand major public health emergencies.

The Framework being considered by the health leaders this week sets out 18 strategies to work towards making the Region free from vaccine-preventable illness, disability and death by 2030.

Second is the Action Framework on access to safe and affordable surgery.

Surgery saves lives and improves the quality of life of millions of people every year.

Most of the people need surgical care at some point in their lives. For example, a c-section to deliver a baby, set a broken bone or remove a cancer, or manage a complication of diabetes.

Surgery is cost-effective and it’s a vital part of the universal health coverage.

But access to the safe and affordable surgery remains limited in this Region, due to geographical challenges and financial barriers.

There are also challenges for patient safety, due to the complexity of care and the risk of infection.

This item is about surgery, but it’s also about transforming health systems so that all services are accessible and of good quality.

Thirdly, we will consider a Regional Actional Plan to promote healthy ageing.

Now, this item is about transforming not only health systems, but also societies.

We had a panel discussion on this topic at the Regional Committee last year. At that time, we were thinking about it in terms of health services for the elderly. But after one year of discussion, we now recognize that what is needed is a transformation not just of the health systems but also the societies, and doing that would have a benefit for everyone.

Our Region is the fastest ageing in the world. Today, there are already more than 240 million people over 65 years in the Western Pacific, and this number is expected to double by 2050.

This presents health, social and economic challenges. But they can also turned into opportunities when societies become more age-friendly: people who live longer and healthier can be active and contribute to their societies—through paid or unpaid work, or consuming and investing, or passing down knowledge and traditions, and acting as a caregiver for young family members.

This kind of transformation takes time, so we need to get started as soon as possible!

There has never been more attention on health than there is today, and on the links between the health of people and of economies. We’re in a unique moment in time – not only because of the pandemic, but because the pandemic has created the conditions in which we have the opportunity to make a choice that changes our future.

Our Region is diverse, and different countries are experiencing different situations in relation to COVID-19. Fifteen of our Pacific islands are yet to record a single case. But as long as the virus is circulating in the world, no country is safe. And there is no sign that this virus is going away quickly.

With that in mind, there are two important things. One: we must continue to make every effort to build and sustain the “new normal”, and two: to maintain the principle of solidarity.

In my last press briefing, I described our Region as entering a new phase. I shared that countries in Asia and the Pacific were exploring more effective and sustainable responses to both control the virus, but also to bring back the economy and also the social life. Making this work requires effort and collaboration from individuals, communities, businesses and the governments.

Over the past 9 months, I’ve observed impressive solidarity in the Region – from technical exchange on issues such as laboratory testing and clinical management, to working together in joint incident management teams, and commitment to support other countries’ access to COVID vaccine should one become available. It’s essential to remember that we are in this together, and we can only get out of this together.

Hundreds of thousands of people in this Region have been infected with COVID-19, and more than 13,000 have lost their lives. I believe that we have an obligation to those people and to their families, not only to get this disease under control, but to build a better future.

Thank you very much.