MANILA — Health Secretary Francisco Duque III was elected this year’s chair for the World Health Organization Western Pacific’s annual regional committee session.
The committee, a governing body composed of health ministers and senior officials from Western Pacific member countries, meets annually to discuss the region’s health issues. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, it will be the first time that the session is held virtually.
According to the Department of Health of the Philippines, Duque will be presiding over the session virtually from October 6 to 9 and will serve his term for a year.
“The circumstances in which we meet this year are very different from last year when we came together to endorse the For the Future vision. Thank you for your continued commitment in implementing that vision in the time of COVID-19, as we work together to adjust to a ‘new normal’ and create a new future,” Duque said during Tuesday’s meeting.
The WHO Regional Office for the Western Pacific told ABS-CBN News that Duque was elected unopposed by other member states. It also explained that the role of chair is shared by the different countries each year.
The DOH said the committee meets annually “to formulate policies, provide oversight for regional programs, report on the progress of their projects, and consider, revise and endorse new initiatives.” Decisions adopted from the session will guide the work of the regional office for the next year.
Among the issues slated to be discussed this year are the COVID-19, vaccine-preventable diseases and immunization, aging and health, safe and affordable surgical interventions, and the program budget for 2022-2023.
During his opening remarks, Dr Takeshi Kasai, WHO Regional Director for the Western Pacific, recalled how the committee gathered in Manila last year.
“None of us could have imagined how quickly the future would arrive. COVID-19 is the most challenging public health event we have seen in 100 years and it is testing not only the capacity of our health systems, but also the resilience of our societies and economies,” Kasai said.
Despite this, he said he was “proud of the spirit of solidarity” of the region in the past 9 months.
WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus also sent a video message discussing the pandemic.
“This new virus may have originated in the Western Pacific, but so far, your region has reported the fewest cases and deaths,” he said, adding that the region’s countries “are an example for the rest of the world of the long-term benefits of investing in emergency preparedness and response.”
“Through painful past experience, many of your countries have developed a strong 'muscle memory' that has helped you to prevent infections and save lives. But all countries must remain vigilant. The virus is still circulating and most people remain susceptible,” he added.
While the Western Pacific is said to be the region with the fewest COVID-19 cases and deaths, the Philippines is among the top 20 countries in the world with the most number of cases.
As of Tuesday, the country has 326,833 cumulative COVID-19 cases. Majority or 273,313 of those have recovered while 5,865 have died.
Several lawmakers have also criticized Duque for his handling of the COVID-19 response. This is on top of accusations that he was involved in anomalies within the Philippine Health Insurance Corp.