COVID19: "The health of each person depends on everyone’s health" [fr]
Presentation of the third Paris Peace Forum via video conference
Speech by M. Jean-Yves Le Drian, Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs
Paris - 29 April 2020
Ladies and gentlemen ambassadors,
I’m struck by the unprecedented and deeply symptomatic nature of the crisis we’re currently going through.
Its uniqueness is clearly related to its extreme seriousness and the scale of its consequences in every field.
In the space of a few months, COVID-19 has affected millions of people, and it continues to affect them. It has turned our lives upside down. International travel is now at a virtual standstill. Never has our generation experienced such an ordeal. Never in recent history have we been faced with such a widespread and brutal shock. So much so that this moment could mark the end of an era. That, at least, is what some commentators are saying.
Personally I believe instead that this crisis is actually proving tremendously revealing: when you look at it closely, it highlights the nature of the challenges and the potency of the dangers which the international community has had to face for many years and which will still, in future, be powerful trends we’ll have to continue dealing with.
So what the coronavirus crisis is revealing first of all, in condensed and exacerbated form, is the nature of the international challenges of the 21st century.
What these challenges have in common is that they disregard borders and spare no country: in environmental terms, climate disruption and the erosion of biodiversity; in terms of development, global inequalities; in security terms, the emergence of globalized terrorism; and in technological terms, the digital revolution. In the face of these challenges, common sense calls for concerted, collective responses.
These challenges concern us all. They usually affect us according to different timeframes and to varying degrees, to such an extent that some people disregard their global significance and turn their backs on their responsibilities. This time the sudden spread of COVID-19 leaves no room for ambiguity: like the animals in La Fontaine’s fable, we are “all sick”, on every continent and, give or take a few weeks, at the same time.
To this extent, salvation can come only from the efforts we can make together to combat the virus. We’re all on the same side against it, because none of us can consider ourselves immune until the pandemic is brought under control. The health of each person depends on everyone’s health. That’s why this crisis reminds us of the three absolute necessities that should always guide us in the face of today’s global challenges:
first of all, the necessity of coordinating, since “everyone for himself” can lead only to collective powerlessness;
secondly, the necessity of cooperating – unity creates strength, as we’ve confirmed whenever we’ve counted on one another to help bring our nationals back home or send medical equipment;
finally, the necessity of solidarity, because we don’t all have the same resources for tackling the crisis. It’s essential for the international community to support the most vulnerable countries, particularly those in Africa. As you know, that’s a priority for France. The reason for all this is not only that we uphold a humanist vision of the world, of course, but also that we’re convinced it’s in our well-understood collective interest.
What the coronavirus crisis is revealing is also the divisions that have been undermining the international system for years.
I’m thinking, of course, of the assertion of power mentalities and the systematization of power relationships. And as we’ve observed, even at the height of the pandemic crisis, rivalries and battles for influence are continuing, as if this were the time for division.
I’m also thinking of the challenging of multilateralism, which even today, contrary to all logic, has its detractors.
So in my opinion, there’s a genuine risk of the current crisis accentuating these divisions. From this point of view, the world after [the crisis] could well be worse than the world before. That, in substance, is what I stated in public recently, and today I’d like to dispel any misunderstandings about the meaning of those remarks: for me, it’s not an inevitability or a mere expression of pessimism and renunciation. On the contrary! It’s a call for a collective response, because we can – and I believe we must – make this crisis speed up the changes we all need.
That’s the route France and Europe will strive to mark out in the coming weeks and months. The third Paris Peace Forum in November will be a special opportunity to continue this thinking together.
But I’d already like to point you to a few of our priorities, because this is an issue we’re all currently focused on: the issue of international health governance.
In order to be effective, this governance must be multilateral.
It must rely on the WHO, which plays an absolutely essential role and which we must work to strengthen and reform.
It must also enable better coordination between all the global health stakeholders.
Here’s the core of the message I’ve come to send you today, as an appeal to remain united in this crisis and prepare ourselves, together, to face up to the crises that could hit us in future.
The WHO – as I’ve said and I want to emphasize – plays an absolutely essential role.
First of all for a common-sense reason: the WHO is one of the pillars of the multilateral system that was founded in the aftermath of the Second World War, and above all it’s now the only global public health organization. So it’s essential for tackling a pandemic, which is itself by its very nature global.
Secondly, the criticisms levelled at it in recent weeks haven’t always done justice to its degree of mobilization.
At the beginning of February the WHO presented a strategic plan for preparing and responding to the COVID-19 epidemic that acts as a compass for all countries.
It published more than 40 guidelines that are updated as knowledge about the virus evolves. That’s extremely useful, because amid the fog of fake news, it’s absolutely crucial to be able to base our political decisions on the latest science.
Finally, the WHO is coordinating research efforts so that together we can develop, produce and distribute a treatment and a vaccine against COVID-19. That’s our shared goal and that of the donors’ conference organized for 4 May by the European Union, which will allow funds to be raised over the coming weeks.
That’s why, in my view, the international community must today rally around the United Nations and the WHO. The crisis isn’t behind us – far from it! – and we can’t afford the luxury of weakening the only global instrument we have for tackling it. It’s a matter of coherence and pragmatism. And I mean pragmatism, because France doesn’t promote multilateralism out of ideology. We promote it because it’s a method which has proven its effectiveness and is the only appropriate method for protecting the global public goods of which health is one, together with the climate, biodiversity, education and food security.
Despite this, when the time comes we’ll have to ask ourselves what hasn’t worked well enough and must be improved, in order to learn every lesson from what we’re experiencing and prepare ourselves for future health crises. France has begun thinking about this issue, based on the two major priorities I’ve just referred to.
Firstly, it’s essential to strengthen the WHO, and this may require a number of reforms.
And first of all, in its normative role.
The International Health Regulations, of which the WHO is guarantor, are an international legal instrument that is binding for 196 countries in the world. Their aim is to help the international community anticipate serious risks to public health, and they also have the task of responding to these threats.
So they’re an essential instrument. They must therefore be fully implemented by States. But we don’t currently have any verification mechanisms in relation to these International Health Regulations. We must consequently think about this. Such mechanisms could take several forms – peer-review mechanisms, publicizing recommendations, inspections – and it must be understood that possible failings should have consequences. Coercive measures could be considered.
Strengthening the WHO also means strengthening its warning role.
It’s already stipulated that it’s the WHO Director-General’s responsibility to declare an international public health emergency, on the recommendation of a committee of independent experts. But we must go further and give the WHO ways of independently verifying the health information passed on by States.
In order to be in a position to act quickly, we need transparency and must know at every moment exactly what the international health situation is. France is therefore considering whether a “high council on human and animal health” should be created. It would be tasked with alerting governments and informing societies, as the IPCC can do for the climate.
We also believe – as you’ll have understood – that the issue of human health must be dealt with in relation to environmental and biodiversity issues, because it’s illusory to dream of a humanity living in good health on a sick planet. Our health, nature and the richness of animal life are common goods that are closely linked to one another. We can’t genuinely manage them without protecting them together. Forgetting one amounts to threatening the others. A single figure is proof enough: according to the WHO, 60% of new, infectious human diseases are of zoonotic – i.e. animal – origin.
This high council would also enable us to intensify the full coordination that has become essential between the relevant international organizations: the WHO, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).
It also seems to us essential to strengthen the WHO’s awareness-raising and training role.
France has therefore been committed, alongside the WHO, to the creation in Lyon of a WHO Academy for health. This academy will enable us to improve the skills of WHO staff, but also of political leaders and health practitioners.
Finally, we think it will be necessary to examine, when the time comes, how we can change the WHO’s financing arrangements, not only to give it more room for manoeuvre but also, again, to guarantee its independence.
Currently, only a quarter of its budget is financed by compulsory contributions from its member States; the rest is mainly funded by voluntary contributions earmarked by a few States and private foundations. To put it in other terms, the WHO is currently too dependent on States’ political decisions about whether to support it or not. We’ll have to think about creating innovative financing, as an alternative to voluntary contributions. France is ready to take part in this discussion.
Our second major priority, which ties in with this first area for action, is to make global health players more coordinated: so the WHO, but also the international financial organizations, private players and, of course, the multilateral funds.
These funds have shown what multilateralism can do for people’s health:
Since it was created, the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria has saved 32 million lives.
In 20 years, Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, has enabled 760 million children to be vaccinated.
Unitaid enables the most vulnerable patients to get the treatment they need – with, for example, treatment which prevents mother-to-child transmission of HIV.
And France is very proud of having always stood alongside these stakeholders in what I call proven multilateralism.
All these players responded robustly to the crisis we’re experiencing and we can only welcome this. But the overall structure has appeared too piecemeal and ill equipped with resources. It’s crucial for the various institutions to work more effectively together, with due regard for their mandates and added value. The number of these players is an asset, but it’s essential to ensure they are coordinated effectively to maximize the collective intelligence they bring.
To do this, the WHO must also see its role of coordinating the response from all the donors strengthened. It will have to be supported by member States which are also involved in the governance of this funding and will have to carry weight with partners who have more significant financial resources, such as multilateral funds (UNAIDS, Global Fund, Gavi) and international financial institutions (World Bank, IMF).
We must also strengthen the Global Action Plan for Healthy Lives and Well-Being for All, which brings together the 12 multilateral players in the global health sphere through commitments to work more effectively together to achieve, by 2030, the third Sustainable Development Goal set by the United Nations. These commitments must now be translated into concrete action, be it in terms of research, funding or solutions on the ground.
To reach this third objective, cooperation between these multilateral players in the field of health must also be extended to all players in the fields of research and development acting in a bilateral capacity.
A word, lastly, on the approach.
To my mind, the multilateral approach itself remains the best lever for improving the way multilateral institutions operate. Indeed, it is only collectively, through dialogue and cooperation, that we’ll be able to strengthen our common instruments on a lasting basis. This requires the rejection of three chronic illnesses from which multilateralism suffers: unilateral withdrawal; systematic deadlock; and manipulation for one’s own interests.
This is also the purpose of the Alliance for Multilateralism meeting which I co-chaired with my German counterpart, Heiko Maas, on 16 April and in which more than 20 other countries from every continent participated. The declaration we adopted, which all the countries committed to collective action can still endorse, gives several possible ways forward for forging ahead on the challenges I’ve just been talking about.
It’s also why on 24 April the President launched an initiative coordinated with the WHO and the major international players involved in responding to the crisis – vertical funds (Gavi, Unitaid, the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria), foundations, the pharmaceutical industry – as regards diagnostics, treatments, vaccines accessible to everyone and the strengthening of national health systems.
The most important thing today, of course, is to deal with the emergency. Yet tomorrow we’ll have to tackle together the underlying problems laid bare by the current crisis. This is why, as was said earlier, the President called for the Paris Peace Forum to serve us in our efforts to find, develop and strengthen solutions commensurate with the challenges. In addition to the issue of global public health governance, which I’ve just been talking about, the Forum will make it possible to step up active efforts on two other extremely important related issues:
The reconstruction of a sustainable economy, with a summit of development banks which will focus on climate finance, and the fight against “infodemics”, which require a stepping-up of the efforts undertaken at the first Forum to combat the manipulation of information.
The new multilateralism we want to build with the Europeans and with all our partners of goodwill is an inclusive multilateralism, open to all international civil society players, because we’re convinced that they have a significant part to play in the solutions we’re seeking. Nonetheless, we believe that States still have no less a central role to play. This is why, again this year, they will retain a prominent place in the Paris Forum, which will, as ever, be opened by heads of State and government.
The success of the two previous Forums owes a great deal to you, ladies and gentlemen ambassadors. Without your help, it wouldn’t have been possible to host 65 heads of State and government in Paris in 2018 and more than 140 official high-level delegations in 2019. Above all, it wouldn’t have been possible to launch or put into practice the great political initiatives in which many of your governments are involved: be it the Paris Call for Trust and Security in Cyberspace, the Information and Democracy Partnership, the Alliance for Multilateralism or many others besides.
So I ask you to continue helping us build, with your capitals, collective solutions, mutually supportive and inclusive solutions, and together learn all the lessons of the crisis we’re going through today.
I look forward to seeing you, then, on 11 November this year and invite all the countries you represent to support international cooperation and sustain it with new initiatives, in these times when it is especially necessary for us.
Thank you for listening.