COVID-19 teaches us about the need for a unified approach to health
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Could World Health Day 2020 mark a milestone in global health history? Perhaps, but not in the way that one might immediately imagine.

Written by David S. Evangelista, President and Managing Director, Special Olympics Europe Eurasia

When the World Health Organization chose to celebrate the vital role that nurses and midwives play in keeping the world healthy, it could never have imagined how chillingly accurate their decision would prove to be.

By all standards, this World Health Day celebration (on 7 April) will now highlight the way in which COVID-19 has changed society’s understanding of itself.  It exposes the fragility of established health systems and celebrates the strength and grit of medical and health care professionals across the world.  In the face of such trepidation, fear and distance, World Health Day 2020 will be defined by contagion, triage and saturation.

Beneath the headlines, advisories and anxiety, there is a growing whisper across the global community that aims to somehow, someway demonstrate that such drastic and disruptive measures are not simply protecting the world from illness but may also be providing the world with a cure. The world is in dire need of a vaccine to rid the globe of this horrific menace, but the world has already received its first healthy dose of medicine. Unlike any other viruses or diseases of this generation, COVID-19 does not adhere to national borders nor does it change its approach on economic grounds.  Quite the contrary. COVID-19 does not discriminate, and it does not apologise.  

For the first time in a generation, COVID-19 has accentuated the clarity of our common humanity.  It is underscoring the urgent necessity of collective action, and in doing so, of unity.  COVID-19 has made it clear that the world can only win this war if it operates as one unified force. This is something the athletes of Special Olympics know very well themselves. Unified as athletes and architects for inclusion, they bring a peaceful revolution for the world, asking the global community to choose a new course – one that widens the circle and includes.  

Special Olympics has taken an active role in supporting athletes and the wider community. In response to the pandemic and global lockdown, Special Olympics is offering an online School of Strength to promote fitness, exercise and connection from home. Household fitness programmes, advocacy initiatives, intense social media activation, and increased engagement and empowerment of our athletes through direct communication, has resulted in countless athletes worldwide developing their own fitness routines, blogs, webinars, and healthier diet programmes. National Special Olympics organisations have created strong social media campaigns, as well as initiatives to get household fitness equipment into the hands of athletes across nations. This is in addition to the ways in which Special Olympics has continuously advocated in support of health care professionals, who are on the front lines of this global crisis.  

Millions of Special Olympics athletes understand precisely how fragmentation, disjointed action, and inequitable measures only serve to deepen the risk and the marginalisation. They also know the origins of the solution, that it is through a shared commitment and coordinated action that the global community will see itself toward the end of this tunnel, and into perhaps what is a ‘new normal’.  

This new social platform will bring with it a new understanding – an awakening that the 2020 World Health Day can boast of for generations to come. COVID-19 offers the world an ironic inspirational moment: to place added support and investment in marginalised and at-risk populations. Not just in refugee camps and remote villages across the Global South, but in high, middle and low economic settings alike. The lack of discrimination on the part of COVID-19 mandates a lack of discrimination in society’s treatment of it.  

The residual impact that COVID-19 may have on the world today offers the potential for a remarkable tomorrow. What if World Health Day 2020 is the first day that places a focus on the how difficult it is for marginalised populations like those with intellectual disabilities to gain proper health care – without a pandemic?  What if this year’s World Health Day highlighted how important it is to ensure that health reaches everyone, regardless of pre-existing conditions, age, ability, or otherwise?  

At a time when the international community has far more questions than answers, World Health Day 2020 begs an answer to the question:  what are the dominant lessons that COVID-19 will teach humanity?    

While it might not seem like it now, and perhaps nor should it, World Health Day 2020 brings to the forefront a new understanding of what world health means and how critical it is to have health serve as a unifying force. All one has to do is go to any windowsill throughout the Iberian peninsula, at 8:00 pm each and every evening, to hear what a unifier it has already become.

Photo caption: A Special Olympics athlete enjoys a FUNfitness screening at the Special Olympics Sweden Invitational Games on 3 February 2020. FUNfitness is one of eight disciplines within Special Olympics Healthy Athletes programme which provides free health screenings and education to Special Olympics athletes in a welcoming, fun environment.


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