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The work of WHO in the Eastern Mediterranean Region - Annual report of the Regional Director 2020

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None of us will ever forget 2020. As the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the world, social and economic life was turned upside down.

It was an extraordinary experience, perhaps especially for anyone involved in the field of health. We witnessed an impressive response by countries of the Region, with health escalated to the top of the policy agenda. We saw incredible efforts on the part of brave, dedicated health professionals and other essential workers to serve their communities. And we mourned the loss of far too many colleagues, friends and loved ones.

This report presents an overview of WHO’s work in the Eastern Mediterranean Region during the year. The Region is highly diverse in terms of socioeconomic circumstances and health systems, and almost half our 22 countries and territories are experiencing conflict or other large-scale humanitarian crises. Managing the pandemic response in that context has presented multiple challenges but also many opportunities, and we did not forget about our other public health priorities.

We start by highlighting some key features of the COVID-19 response. This is followed by chapters focusing on each of our four strategic priorities, as set out in WHO’s vision for the Region, Vision 2023, and our regional strategy. Those priorities – protecting people from emergencies, expanding universal health coverage (UHC), promoting healthier populations and transforming WHO – are aligned with WHO’s main global strategy, the Thirteenth General Programme of Work (GPW 13), and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

As the report shows, the pandemic touched every aspect of our work and raised many challenges. Essential health services were severely disrupted. Weaknesses in health systems were mercilessly exposed. And while there was investment in health on an unprecedented scale, many personnel and other resources were diverted to the COVID-19 response.

But as the report also shows, time and again the pandemic also stimulated new ways of thinking and operating through which WHO staff, our countries and partners were able to maintain services and activities. There were notable achievements during the year far beyond the COVID-19 response, and many innovations that offer the opportunity for long-term improvements in health and well-being.

The report is not a comprehensive account of all WHO’s activities in the Region during the year – that would be a very long and detailed document. Instead, in keeping with our aim to engage with the widest possible range of stakeholders and ensure that we are accountable to a broad public, we have focused on the most important issues and challenges during the year.

The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated the value of many of the strategies that WHO has been advocating for years. Investing to build stronger, more resilient health systems. Establishing national infection prevention and control programmes. Ensuring effective, integrated disease surveillance. Developing national capacities under the International Health Regulations (IHR 2005). Implementing robust multisectoral approaches and engaging whole communities in health promotion.

Truly, our work – and that of our countries and partners – has never been so important. We will be working hard to learn the lessons of the pandemic and build back better and fairer towards our vision of Health for All by All in the years ahead.