Invest in Health Workforce – Invest in Peace

How does health impact peace? This question was on the minds of delegates as they gathered in Geneva earlier last month for the World Health Organization’s 75th World Health Assembly (WHA). For the first time since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the annual meeting was held in person. The 2022 theme – Health for Peace, Peace for Health – explored the interrelationship of health and peace and how health interventions are particularly well-suited for peacebuilding across the globe.

In his opening remarks, WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus elaborated on this symbiosis. Conflicts are a major obstacle to health, he said, while a lack of access to health and basic social services can lead to conflict and violence. He called on the world to find innovative ways to address differences, strengthen resilience and empower people to rebuild peaceful relations with each other.

Unfortunately, today’s crisis-laden world makes these goals more elusive than ever. We face a daunting combination of disease, drought, famine and war, fueled by climate change, inequity and geopolitical rivalry. Global health imperatives, such as building up an adequate health care workforce, eradicating disease, advancing health security and renewing the drive toward universal health coverage (UHC) and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), simply won’t succeed in a divided world.

The WHO makes this clear in its recently released Progress Report on the Global Action Plan for Healthy Lives and Well-being for All. The 2022 update focuses on how COVID-19 has placed major demands on national governments, highlighting the need for increased investment in health systems recovery and primary health care to achieve the health-related SDGs. Additionally, COVID has created a new global health architecture with the potential to prepare for and respond to future pandemics. Peace and harmony are key. Without them, collaboration among key actors in a multilateral system is impossible.

Prior to the WHA, WHO, the International Council of Nurses, and the International Confederation of Midwives held their 9th annual Triad Meeting. More than 650 nursing and midwifery leaders from 165 countries participated. The meeting focused on country-level implementation of the WHO’s Global Strategic Directions for Nursing and Midwifery 2021-2025 (SDNM), which were adopted at last year’s WHA. The SDNM spell out what we must do over the next few years to increase the pipeline of nurses and midwives at every level and ensure an educated, professional, well-trained workforce.

Participants at the Triad Meeting agreed to the following:

  • Accelerate implementation of the SDNM as the global mandate for strengthening nursing and midwifery to achieve UHC
  • Adopt innovative approaches to strengthen health workforce teams
  • Increase investment in education, skills, jobs, and safeguards for health and care workers
  • Ethically manage international recruitment of health workers

As the WHO has noted numerous times, and as I highlighted in an earlier blog post, if we do nothing to bolster the nursing and midwifery workforce, we risk a growing global nursing shortage that could reach more than 5.7 million by 2030. That’s only 7.5 years away.

Without nurses, midwives and other health workers, there is no health care. And with no health care, there is no peace. As leaders from the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) said at their International Nurses Day event, let’s invest in nursing education, jobs, leadership and practice. Implementing the SDNMs will help us accomplish these goals.

Not only that, but bolstering the health workforce and cultivating nursing and midwifery leaders will improve our ability to handle the next pandemic. Make no mistake – another one is coming. And, as our response to COVID-19 made abundantly clear, the world is woefully unprepared to respond to such large-scale health emergencies. Unless we take steps to shore up our preparedness and response capacity now, we can expect an endless loop of socioeconomic disruption playing repeatedly as we grapple with the challenges ahead.

In their recent report, Transforming or Tinkering: Inaction Lays the Groundwork for Another Pandemic, two esteemed global health pioneers lay bare the fundamental reality. The Honorable Helen Clark, former Prime Minister of New Zealand, and Her Excellency Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, former President of Liberia, co-chairs of the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response, say the world remains ill-equipped for the next pandemic. As COVID-19 continues to take a huge toll, the authors write, “political focus to prepare for more waves is flagging. Work has begun to prevent the next pandemic, but at the current pace, the transformative change required will take years to complete.”

Preparedness starts with an adequate workforce of nurses, midwives and health care workers. It’s an investment in our future, our well-being, our security, our prosperity and our health. Above all, it’s an investment in peace.

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