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Leaders at COVID-19 UN meet urged to put public at heart of pandemic response

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Public health and social justice advocates call for rights-based, gender sensitive, more equitable approaches rather than “top-down, command-and-control oriented” approach

As heads of state and government convene on December 3-4 for the UN General Assembly Special Session on COVID-19 to assess the impact of the pandemic, to share insights on how to best shape the ongoing COVID-19 response, and to prepare for future global health crises, a growing group of public health, social justice and human rights advocates have released a Call to Action to put the community at the centre of the COVID-19 response.

In the run-up to this Special Session, the Call is being made public to encourage leaders at local, national and global levels to practice solidarity and implement this rights-based, gender sensitive approach that puts the public at the heart of the pandemic response.

The Call, Reclaiming Comprehensive Public Health, sets out 10 principles to guide leaders towards more comprehensive and effective action to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic and future global health challenges through stronger, more equitable public health approaches. The Call advocates highlight that this will save more lives and livelihoods.

The call has the endorsement of public health and social justice advocates from across the globe including Dr Devaki Nambiar, and Dr Soumyadeep Bhaumik from the George Institute for Global Health India;  Bhavesh Jain, physician;  Dr Sayan Das, Centre from Social Medicine and Community Health, Jawaharlal Nehru University and Dr Nitin Bajpai of Sarvodaya  Gram Udyog Sansthan. The call has been translated into a lot of Indian languages including Kannada, Hindi and Gujarati.

“Early in the pandemic, the dominant response from global leaders was biomedical, top-down, command-and-control oriented, with people and civil society largely ‘locked-out’ of meaningful decision-making. We cannot afford the same narrow and limited approach,” said Professor Kent Buse, Director, Healthier Societies programme, The George Institute for Global Health. “We all stand to gain if leaders ensure that all parts of society are actively engaged in shaping the pandemic response.”

Publication of the Call is well-timed. The pandemic continues to surge in many settings and authors of the Call believe the principles it sets out are critical to mitigating ‘pandemic fatigue’ currently affecting some parts of the world, and to invigorating inclusive responses that are sustainable and protect all at risk, especially those most marginalised.

Insights gathered by the EQUINET research collective into how communities in different countries have countered COVID-19, include reports of an ‘outbreak of generosity’ and solidarity that ‘show that a compassionate society is not contradictory to, and in fact enhances, public health’. Building trust is one of the key principles outlined in the Call, along with ensuring that interventions are context-appropriate, inclusive, and built with community agency and voice.

“The Call stems from concern on how governments across the world managed COVID-19, ignoring comprehensive  health systems responses during COVID-19. At the same time there are many examples of action that align with the Call, invariably by putting communities at the heart of response” said Soumyadeep Bhaumik from The George Institute.  “For instance, we in India conducted rapid evidence synthesis to understand how community health workers can be at the forefront of the COVID-19 response and successfully engaged with the Government. The Call aims to bring attention to leaders that this is indeed better and together we can do better for everyone.”

Over 250 individuals and leading organisations and networks – including a range of global health initiatives, schools of public health, development institutes, international and local NGOs – have signed the Call so far.

The Call will be conveyed to the President of the UN General Assembly to inform the deliberations of the Special Session of the General Assembly of the United Nations.

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