The 70th World Health Assembly

Four ripped tights, two coffee stained blouses, and forty-some espresso shots later, the 70th World Health Assembly would turn out to be one of the best experiences of my life. As the highest health-policy shaping body in the world, the World Health Assembly convened 194 member-countries to discuss a plethora of global health topics ranging from emergency response to human rights. And through the Institute for Global Health at USC, I had the immense privilege of being a part of it all.

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When I was a child, the prestige of the United Nations and the World Health Organization laid in its humane commitment to bringing unity and keeping peace. As I got older and formulations of the ideal were inevitably exchanged for truth, this somewhat myopic lens of my childhood began to disintegrate and the concepts of worldwide unity and peace felt more elusive, perhaps, even at times, impalpable. But, the World Health Assembly remained steadfast in its work of constructing global policies for the sake of health and the well-being of everyone, everywhere- no matter what. This, by no means as I would find out was a small feat and required interdisciplinary collaboration, multi-sectoral integration, and high-level cohesion. Experts in every facet from medicine to law and health ministries of 194 country delegations engaged in meaningful discourse towards an accessible and progressive health agenda-universal health coverage. The assembly offered a unique space where voices felt heard.

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Days at the assembly were long and jam-packed as the world had endured quite a lot within the past year and there was much to be covered in a short span of two weeks. Formalized general committee meetings and plenary sessions discussed critical issues, such as migrant and refugee health, access to vaccines and medicines, and emergency epidemics. More informal and smaller side-events held by select country delegations and non-state actors conversed on topics, such as malaria-free initiatives, polio eradication campaigns, prevention of non-communicable diseases, and reduction of air pollution. Six official UN languages were translated in every room and the UN Palace in Geneva bustled with the world’s highest health officials and experts. Luckily, the fellow students of the Institute for Global Health and I had spent the prior week visiting and learning about UN agencies, the GAVI vaccine alliance, the World Economic Forum, the World Trade Organization, and the likes to gauge a better understanding of relevant global players and non-state actors in this sphere.

However, while I was at the assembly, I couldn’t help but think-Was my life real? Nivedita. Me. A 25-year-old Keck School of Medicine student was speaking to health ministers, shaking hands with former prime ministers, sitting next to country ambassadors, and exchanging contact information with global health icons. At an event for the newly elected Director-General, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the health ministry of Zimbabwe joked that they would endorse me for Director-General in 10 years and that’s when it dawned on me- this was most definitely real. (Also, was this a bad time to tell them that all my suits had coffee stains and my last meal was half a banana?)

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But, perhaps, the highlight of my trip was getting to meet my heroine, if you will, the absolutely amazing, Dr. Margaret Chan. I was honored to hear her give her last speech after 10-years of serving as the Director-General of the World Health Organization. Her humble voice, strong yet kind, she said,  “Above all, remember the people. Behind every number is a person who defines our common humanity and deserves our compassion especially when suffering or premature death can be prevented.” And this sentiment, resonates with us all. Young and old, alike, it reminds us of why we came to the assembly, what we’ve devoted our lives to doing, and why we will never stop working… As I left Geneva, I couldn’t help but feel inspired, for in the face of global injustice and devastation, the assembly stood as an emblem for something truly powerful- resilience. There are people who stand at the juncture of empathy and grit- these very people who passionately work in the hopes of radiating a light for the world to see, a little bit brighter. IMG_1778


Nivedita Kar is a doctoral student in the biostatistics program at USC. Learn more about the annual USC trips to the World Health Assembly at https://globalhealth.usc.edu/wha.

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