UNITED NATIONS — In four days of fiery speeches over war, climate change and the threat of nuclear weapons, one issue felt like an afterthought during this year's U.N. General Assembly: the coronavirus pandemic.
Masks were often pulled below chins — or not worn at all — and any mention of COVID-19 by world leaders typically came at the tail-end of a long list of grievances.
But on the sidelines of the annual meeting, the pandemic was still very much part of the conversation.
On Thursday, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres gathered with World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, UNICEF Executive Director Catherine Russell and others to discuss equitable access to COVID vaccines, tests and treatments.
And earlier that day, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Linda Thomas-Greenfield joined leaders from around the globe to mark the progress that has been made to fight COVID-19 — including the more than 620 million vaccine doses to 116 countries and economies that the United States has provided. But she emphasized there is still much work to do.
Tedros noted that the number of deaths around the globe is near its lowest since the pandemic began, and two-thirds of the world's population is vaccinated. But the encouraging signs mask a deep disparity between wealthy and poor countries.
For instance, only 19% of people living in low-income countries are fully vaccinated compared with 75% in high-income countries. And only 35% of health care workers and 31% of older populations in lower-income countries are fully vaccinated and boosted.
Key to closing those gaps, according to Guterres, is countering misinformation about vaccines and overcoming hesitancy while also increasing testing to snuff out the potential for more variants. The world also needs early warning systems for pandemics and must ensure a well-paid and well-supplied workforce in the health care sector.
“Let’s get it done," Guterres said. "Let’s end this pandemic once and for all.”
Thomas-Greenfield said that COVID-19 care needs to be shifted from being offered primarily in emergency facilities to integrating it in routine services.
She outlined three new initiatives: a pilot program to be launched in 10 countries to help people get screened for COVID-19 and receive antiviral medications; a $50 million commitment from the U.S to improve access to medical oxygen critical for treating patients with severe cases; and a global clearinghouse to make medical supply chains more resilient, efficient and equitable.
While few would argue that the situation has not improved — and indeed U.S. President Joe Biden recently remarked that the pandemic was over before walking back his comments — no one on Thursday was ready to call it quits.
“A marathon runner does not stop when the finish line comes into view,” Tedros said, and instead runs harder to get to the end.
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