A global crisis that must be tackled together

Published 22 April 2020 in:

Anders Nordström was the WHO’s Head of Country Office in Sierra Leone 2015-2017 in connection with the Ebola outbreak.

“The COVID-19 pandemic reminds us of the importance of broad, preventive public health efforts,” says Anders Nordström, Sweden’s Ambassador for Global Health. His work in recent weeks has been dominated by the COVID-19 outbreak.

The Ambassador for Global Health’s mandate includes a broad spectrum of issues. Mr Nordström names three priority areas. The first: working for everyone’s equal right to good health and medical care, not least when it comes to sexual and reproductive health and rights. The second: broad public health issues, including preventive efforts. The third area deals with managing humanitarian crises and acute health threats such as the outbreak of diseases, which is particularly relevant at this time.

“I usually devote much of my time to broad public health issues. How do we create a society in which people stay healthy? This covers everything from smoking and physical activity to what we eat,” says Mr Nordström.

He says that in recent decades, the world has seen some major advances on several fronts. Access to and the quality of health and medical care has continuously increased. The incidence of HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria has decreased dramatically, and child mortality has been halved since 2000. However, we have not been as successful when it comes to preventive efforts.

“By far, one of the biggest public health problems today is obesity. One third of all excess mortality around the world depends on what we eat.”

Sweden’s management of the COVID-19 pandemic

Several international media have given coverage to Sweden’s management of the COVID-19 virus. Mr Nordström feels that Sweden’s approach is really not as different as it is sometimes portrayed.

“Our social model is built on trust and confidence, where people take their own responsibility and listen to public authorities. We have a culture of social control and taking responsibility that works without strict prohibitions.”

He feels that it is important to look at how measures to fight the COVID-19 virus affect society and public health in general. For example, you can see that Swedes to a great extent are already working from home, staying home if they feel ill and avoiding unnecessary social contacts. Closing schools must be weighed against the fact that there will fewer people working in health care when parents stay home with their children. Taking a walk in the spring sun is not harmful to your health, just the opposite.

“Ultimately, our goal is to stop the spread of the infection, ensure that health care works and save lives. In this, our approach in no different than that of other countries.”

Clear need for international cooperation

Anders Nordström highlights global cooperation as crucial to finding a solution to the crisis. In particular, he points to UN bodies, development banks and various global funds as key to efforts to mitigate the impact of the pandemic. Sweden has long been at the forefront, not least through substantial non-earmarked core support to many multilateral organisations, which is vital to give these organisations the flexibility to quickly make adjustments and deal with crises. During this crisis, Sweden has also provided additional funds to the WHO, the ICRC and several other international actors.

“This is a global crisis, and something that all countries must tackle together. We must support international cooperation, not least within the WHO.”

He emphasises the need to consider the broad contexts and to take a long-term perspective, both at home in Sweden and in international development cooperation.

“We must not neglect other health issues while we’re caught up in of all this. That was an important lesson from the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone in 2014, when more people died from other causes, such as deficient maternity care,” he says.

Author: Nils Dahlqvist