Covid-19 shows need for strong healthcare systems to get most vulnerable vaccinated: Ong Ye Kung

The pandemic has shown the need for countries to have equitable access to key disease control tools such as vaccines. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

SINGAPORE - Covid-19 has shown a pressing need for strong primary healthcare systems that can persuade and get the most vulnerable in each country vaccinated, Health Minister Ong Ye Kung said during a meeting of the world's health authorities.

The pandemic has also underscored the need for a coordinated approach in tackling this and future health emergencies.

This includes having secure supply chains and urban development that factors for pandemic control, and an education system that can continue operating to avert a "lost generation" of children with schooling gaps.

This is why the world needs to urgently carry out recommended reforms to strengthen the international system in preparation for the next pandemic, Mr Ong told the Group of 20 Health Ministers' Meeting in Rome that concluded on Monday (Sept 6).

Attendees at the annual meeting included the 19-member countries and the European Union, as well as several international organisations. Singapore attended the conference as a guest at the invitation of current G-20 president, Italy.

During the discussions, Mr Ong called for concrete follow-ups on the reforms recommended by the G-20 High-Level Independent Panel in July.

Among the panel's recommendations were for more multilateral financing for global health security that will lead to a strengthened World Health Organisation (WHO) and to ensure global public goods form part of the core mandate for international financial institutions such as the World Bank.

The panel also called for a global health threats fund that will bring more predictable financing for health security, which will also pay for a global surveillance network for infectious diseases threats.

Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam co-chairs the panel, together with former United States Treasury secretary Lawrence Summers and World Trade Organisation director-general Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala.

The pandemic has also shown the need for countries to have equitable access to key disease control tools such as vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostic tests.

For that to happen, countries have to ensure the free movement of such items, and to resist the urge to impose export controls, said Mr Ong.

"I hope all countries refrain to the maximum extent, the imposition of export controls of essential medical items and vaccines," he said.

Key nodes of global distribution, such as airports and seaports, must also stay open as any disruption will be felt globally, he added.

Singapore, for instance, has been facilitating crew change so that sea crew can be rotated rather than stuck on their ships, while Changi Airport has laboured to become a regional distribution hub for Covid-19 vaccines by building its ultra-cold chain capabilities.

Organisations like the G-20 and WHO also have an important role in ensuring the world does not fragment into regions which fail to recognise one another's vaccines.

"This will undo decades of progress to build collaboration and mutual dependence between countries and regions for a safer and more prosperous world," said Mr Ong.

"Ultimately, we must recognise a vaccine based on science, its efficacy against infection, and development of severe illnesses."

At the close of the meeting, participants adopted a declaration that emphasised the importance of strong multilateral collaboration to tackle the pandemic. The health ministers agreed that vaccination was key, and set a target to vaccinate at least 40 per cent of the world by end of this year.

Host Italy said G-20 members also agreed to expand financial support and the provision of vaccines to poor countries to help them inoculate their populations, although there appeared to be no new numerical commitment.

"There is a political commitment to distribute vaccines to the whole world," Italian Health Minister Roberto Speranza told reporters.

Mr Ong also had bilateral meetings with his counterparts from the US, Britain, Indonesia, Germany, France and Spain on the meeting's sidelines.

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