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President of the Pan American Health Organization’s 59th Directing Council, Jamaica’s Health Minister, Dr. Christopher Tufton, has lamented the devastating impact that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on countries in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Addressing the opening of the 73rd Session of the Regional Committee of the World Health Organization (WHO) of the Americas, at PAHO’s headquarters in Washington DC on Monday, Dr. Tufton pointed to the inequality in the distribution of vaccines internationally, with low-income countries at the bottom of the receiving end.

“A disproportionate amount of the over five billion doses administered globally has gone to high-income countries. While some countries in our region have vaccinated over 50 per cent of their population, others remain below three per cent. More than a third of countries in Latin America and the Caribbean are yet to vaccinate 20 per cent of their populations,” Dr. Tufton said.

The Health and Wellness Minister told the WHO Council and delegates, that “Although inequality has always been a defining feature of the global economic order, COVID-19 has sharpened inequalities, raising critical questions [as we move towards COVID-19 recovery] about the role of multilateralism in addressing shared public health challenges.

“Although our region and our health systems are diverse – and it is important to recognise this – as a region, collectively we share a common vision for public health – to improve the health and quality of life of people in the region and to get our societies and economies back to ‘normal’ in the shortest time possible,” he continued.

Dr. Tufton pointed out that “Now more than ever, the region must act as a united force to build capacity and resilience in our public health systems. PAHO has played a significant role in this regard and continues to be a unifying force in the region.”

He recommended that the WHO “must commit to building a more robust healthcare system, capable of addressing current and future threats through greater efforts to address equality of access to essential medicines and health technologies and sustainable health financing.

In addition, he said:  “Greater emphasis should be placed on primary healthcare; more collaboration around human resource training, support, and recognition, addressing the persistent scourge of [non-communicable diseases] (NCDs) that make our populations more vulnerable to man-made or natural disasters; as well as building the capacity for emergency response to disasters and emerging and re-emerging diseases that have become a reoccurring challenge for countries in the region and in particular small-island developing states.”

Dr. Tufton also noted that “Improving healthcare across the region and returning our societies to a sense of normality or a ‘new normal’ will depend on our willingness to encourage more equitable policies, deepen multilateral cooperation, and address current weaknesses in the global public health system. The strengths of partnerships on this road to recovery are fostered by greater collaboration and less fragmentation in our efforts. Now is the time for us to join hands and hearts. Together we can succeed. We are as strong as our weakest link”.

The Health and Wellness Minister is being supported by Jamaica’s Ambassador to the United States, Her Excellency Audrey Marks, and the island’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Jacquiline Bisasor-McKenzie.

PAHO works with countries in the region to improve and protect people’s health, by engaging in technical cooperation with its member states to fight communicable and non-communicable diseases and other causes, to strengthen health systems, and to respond to emergencies and disasters. The conference ends on Friday (September 24).

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