Back To The Circus: Loyce Pace On The Value Of The World Health Assembly

This post is originally published on Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health Global Health NOW and is written by Brian W. Simpson

Loyce Pace, the president and executive director of the Global Health Council, at #WH71 in Geneva. Image by Brian W. Simpson

The World Health Assembly can be crowded, exhausting and chaotic yet Loyce Pace keeps coming back. This is her 11th WHA. The reason? For all its flaws, it’s still the people getting together and trying to solve health problems, she says.

Between meetings and leading events with US Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar and other leaders, the president and executive director of the Global Health Council paused to share her thoughts on key issues, including US involvement in global health, universal health coverage and why the WHA is relevant.

What are your priorities here at this year’s World Health Assembly?

If you just think about the agenda items, the actual Global Health issues that are up for discussion, we’re paying attention to all of them, arguably, given our vast membership and broad portfolio, but we’re especially keen to track things like the [General] Programme of Work.

What do you think about it? It’s a good strategic plan for WHO?

I think so, yeah. It’s ambitious, but it fits Dr. Tedros’s brand. I don’t think he was going to come in and propose or attempt anything small. I know that there are outstanding questions about how it gets done. I think he readily recognizes and accepts that challenge. Related to another thing we care about, he recognizes that WHO shouldn’t necessarily do it alone. I think that’s why he’s so confident in it because it’s not really intended just to be a WHO plan. Granted, it lives here. I think he invites multiple stakeholders to help WHO meet those objectives. That’s the only way you can really hit these triple billion targets, honestly, is by bringing all resources to bear.

Other things you’re following?

There’s still work to be done in the global health security space to be sure, which is why we are still very much tracking the issues. It’s not enough to, for example, identify the problems and gaps. We actually have to fill them. In the conversations we’re having as part of our events this week and with government and other stakeholders, they recognize there are still some shortcomings to capacity and response and that readiness and resilience we’re all striving for across all countries. Not everyone is there yet. That’s the reality.

Obviously, Tedros really emphasized universal health coverage as the theme for the World Health Assembly.

He did.

Do you see that there’s real meat on the bone here about that, or is it more of a slogan that he needs to keep maintaining?

That’s interesting. I do view it somewhat as an overarching framework. That works. I think it works as a rallying cry for all stakeholders to come around. I think there are some outstanding questions to your point of how we get it done. Some of that is fleshed out in the Programme of Work and from other forums as well. I think that’s a very important conversation to have with WHO as well as Member States and civil society.

I want to ask you about the US government and global health. When we last spoke here, last year, there was, obviously, the new US administration and a lot of uncertainty and a lot of rhetoric. Tom Price was here and seemed to make nice with everybody and then he was gone. A lot of change. How has the last year has rolled and what your thoughts on the US government presence here?

Last year was a really, wow … . We still had a lot of question marks around the current administration. I remember us responding to the proposed budgets even while during the week we were in Geneva at WHA, but also being very pleased to see the US have a presence and have Tom Price led the delegation, then Secretary Price, and really speak eloquently to a number of issues including global health security and reiterate the US’s leadership role.

I haven’t been able to meet the current secretary [Alex Azar] just yet, but he will be speaking at our event [Thursday]. I know that he has otherwise made himself available for other dialogs, as has his delegation… . They’re still very much showing up and, again, expressing support for this work.

That enables us to be somewhat encouraged that at least US engagement in this space will continue. How that moves forward, no one can ever know under any administration, but there seems to be support for Dr. Tedros and his agenda and, again, an openness to the broader Global Health community with regards to our agenda and asks.

What would you say to people who work in global health about the World Health Assembly and what happens here? Why is the WHA important? Is it actually relevant to what they do?

It’s a fair question. I ask myself why I keep coming back every year. I think I’ve been coming since 2008, which is a pretty long time to show up for this circus that is WHA. There are a few reasons. One is if we really do see the World Health Organization as the premier institution or agency to guide us all to better health for all, then we have to show up and help them set their agenda or at least inform what that should look like. This is where they decide what’s important, what they’ll do, how they’ll move forward with whom and how and why, arguably. That’s critical.

For the person out there who wonders what happens here, I think that’s what it is. There are people in need all over the world of better health and wellness. And [representatives from] countries from all over the world come together and try to figure that out for their people and for the greater good. That’s why I come back every year.

I think one thing we always want to make sure we see is that it doesn’t just stay stuck here. This cannot just be a conversation in the hallways in Geneva, Switzerland, but something that translates on the ground.

It’s another reason why we come because we feel like we represent the voice of the people to some degree. We even have people like that on our delegation. We have people who have been affected by chronic diseases, for example, or who have other personal stories that they can share with country delegates or as part of events so that we all remember why we’re here.

Do you feel that you and civil society, nonstate actors, in general actually do have a voice, do have the access, do have an impact?

I think that that has … been noticeably different this year. I don’t recall a time when there were so many civil society-focused events. There was a major event last night, which Dr. Tedros attended, that focused on civil society engagement. He had commissioned this taskforce to assess how WHO had been engaging civil society and to what degree that could be improved.

They continue to collect information to advise WHO accordingly, but I think that’s a great sign. It was nice to see that culminate last night with the presentation of those efforts but also a commitment to continue that dialog.