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Message from the Executive Director

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“On World TB Day, join me in calling on world leaders to ensure that the political will and funding we are seeing for COVID-19 continues well after this crisis is resolved.”

Message from the Executive Director, 24 March 2020

Every evening across Paris, my neighbours step onto their balconies and lean out their windows to send up collective applause for the healthcare workers who are battling, sometimes at personal risk to themselves and their own health, to care for people in need and reduce the spread of the coronavirus. This is happening in cities and countries across the world, in a moment of solidarity across the physical distance that currently separates us.

Reading the news these days, predictions for the future look bleak, and governments are scrambling to protect those they serve. At a time when there is so much negative forecasting and so many somber predictions, it is important that we also see the opportunity we have to set our priorities straight and create a world better protected against future health crises.

Our healthcare systems, science and research are emerging as some of our most vital public services. Billions are being diverted into research and development efforts to find treatments and vaccines for COVID-19. There is renewed appreciation for international cooperation and multilateral organisations like the World Health Organization are emerging as calm and authoritative leaders. And people across the globe are sacrificing individual pleasures for the greater good by staying home to help slow the spread of disease.

In the TB community there is a saying: “TB anywhere is TB everywhere.” This underscores that until every last person has access to prevention, diagnostics and treatment, TB will continue to be a shared issue of international concern. This lesson, that without confronting these emergencies together through coordinated global health measures, is one the entire world is suddenly recognising.

I know that for many of us who have dedicated our lives to TB and global health, this feels like the doomsday scenario we have been warning about for decades. The challenge before us is immense. We must develop and repurpose tools to fight COVID-19 while ensuring that people seeking medical care for TB, HIV and all other diseases continue to have access. And yes, with more funding into research and development, greater political will and better resourced health systems over the years, we could certainly have been better prepared to confront a global pandemic of this magnitude. 

But negativity will paralyse us. The lessons we have learned through our experience with TB are serving us well as we adapt and expand the TB response to account for other infectious respiratory diseases like COVID-19.

We know that prevention must be our first line of defense - for both TB and COVID-19, as well as other diseases. The long-known methods of contact tracing, wide-spread testing and infection control that have shown success in TB are now being used to curb the spread of COVID-19 in South Korea, Singapore and Hong Kong, among others.

Diagnostic tools that have revolutionised TB testing like the GeneXpert are being put to use to run rapid tests for coronavirus in just 45 minutes.

TB survivors are coming forward as champions who can speak to the inexcusable hardship that they have endured and assure us that we too can get through this. And we’ve learned, through our experience with TB, of the effects of stigma on people with or at risk of a disease, and the importance of the language we use when describing illnesses.

Today, on World TB Day, we have an opportunity to come together for global health, to pool our resources and expertise and to break out of our ‘disease factions’ of the TB expert or the HIV researcher.

Join me in calling on world leaders – now woefully aware of its importance – to ensure that the political will and funding for health systems, vaccines, diagnostics and treatments for disease continue well after this crisis is resolved. COVID-19 is a grim wake-up call to the reality of what happens when investment in public health systems is neglected. This must be the beginning as we move towards building strong interconnected health responses – but it cannot be the end.

The Union stands in solidarity and with resilience in this fight. And I thank all of you – our members, partners and community – who have joined with us in recent days to lend your expertise and support.