Lyonpo becomes the first Bhutanese president of the World Health Assembly 

Younten Tshedup 

Sowai Lyonpo (health minister) Dechen Wangmo called for global solidarity to combat Covid-19 in her maiden address as the President of the World Health Assembly (WHA) in Geneva, Switzerland, yesterday.

Lyonpo was formally elected as the President of the WHA during the inaugural session of the 74th  WHA yesterday. This is the first time that a Bhutanese has been elected as the president of the WHA, 39 years after the country became a member of the World Health Organisation (WHO).

As the world continued to struggle amid the fast-transmitting virus, Lyonpo said that it was only through the power of ‘solidarity and cohesiveness’ that nations could overcome the global pandemic.

“As the pandemic continues to spread in different pockets across the world with the looming threats of different variants of the virus, we must now think of a global recourse,” she said. “A recourse that is deeply rooted in the values of humanity and compassion that must rise above petty nationalism and reach out to each and every individual on this planet.”

She said that the pandemic has once again reminded all that when it came to critical and common global threats, the world was a singular unit. “We must come together as one, to devise common solutions for problems that can affect us all.”

Lyonpo said that the WHO Director General aptly pointed out that during a global pandemic, ‘no one is safe unless everyone is safe’.

The minister also highlighted the increased inequality in accessing health and social service during the pandemic and called for systemic changes in the health care systems.

To ensure resilience and enhanced preparedness during future health emergencies, Lyonpo called upon all the 194 member states to consider a Global Humanitarian Corridor to ensure seamless flow of medicines, vaccines, and other critical health commodities during pandemics and public health emergencies.

“I strongly feel that such displays of true solidarity would have  profound impact on public health and the lives of countless people all over the world, especially those living in harsher socio-economic environments.”

She said that during pandemics and global health emergencies, it was often the most vulnerable in the societies who were affected the most including women, children, differently abled, and those with chronic diseases.

“Therefore, while designing and instituting our preparedness and response systems, we must relook at the current systems and strategies to address their specific and special needs both during normal times, and during public health emergencies,” she said.

She added that while managing the pandemic, it was equally important to keep the routine health services running. “Equal numbers of people are dying of preventable cancers,” she said, adding that Bhutan recently tabled the agenda on eliminating cervical cancer, during the last executive board meeting.

Sharing Bhutan’s experience of the pandemic, Lyonpo Dechen Wangmo highlighted the importance of leadership during pandemics. She said that Bhutan has been fortunate, largely due to the selfless leadership of His Majesty The King, who forged a unified all-of-the-government and all-of-the-society response to the pandemic.

“Our response is grounded on the core principles of empathy and compassion while ensuring all our policies and actions are based on the best of scientific evidence available at the time,” she said.

“For my small country, the singular moral authority of the sovereign with its ability to unite the nation, augmented by a technocratic cabinet with strong public health and medical background was instrumental in averting a major public health crisis.”

Lyonpo said that it was clear from scientific evidence that the pandemic could only be controlled when everyone was vaccinated.

“It is time now for the global community to come together as one to ensure that every country in the world gets sufficient doses of the Covid- 19 vaccine,” she said. “We must remember that only solidarity and science, and not solitude will get us out of this pandemic.”


A recognition

WHO country representative Dr Rui Paulo de Jesus said that securing the presidency of the WHA was a major achievement on the public health front for Lyonpo and Bhutan.

“Despite its smallness, it is inspiring to know that Bhutan has a female leader with the technical know-how and who could be trusted by all the 194 member states in terms of global public health issues,” he said.

Dr Rui said that besides the visibility it would provide the country, Lyonpo’s appointment as the president was also an opportunity for Bhutan in the global forum to showcase its strength and allow the rest of the world to learn from it. “I would like to congratulate all Bhutanese for this achievement.”

Sowai Lyonpo will hold the presidency for a year.