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The Building BRICS for a Healthier Future
January 16, 2017, 5:05 pm

Every government wants to protect the health of its people because this is a considerable national asset. But no nation can on its own overcome the panoply of threats to public health.

As global and national health systems face growing and complex threats, increasing international cooperation to overcome them, therefore, becomes an imperative.

The BRICS bloc of nations — Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa — is a leading intergovernmental forum for cooperation of five large, fast-growing economies with significant influence on international issues, including global health.

As both the 8th BRICS Summit hosted by India in Goa in mid-October, and the more recent meeting of BRICS’ health ministers held in New Delhi, India, on 13 to 15 December 2016, demonstrated, these countries have the will and the potential to jointly be a leading forum for cooperation on global health.

The BRICS are one of the most representative world bodies with members from four continents: Asia, Africa, South or Latin America, and Europe. Representing almost half the world’s population and about a quarter of the world’s GDP, the BRICS represent a broad cross section of countries in the world.

Moreover, the BRICS provide a tremendous opportunity for driving cooperation because as a body of five states their potential for achieving a consensus on issues of global health is perhaps greater than that of any other global entity, most of which have more members and thus more diverse views to reconcile.

The BRICS potential for helping to attain consensus on global health issues is crucial.

The goodwill of states

The world’s primary intergovernmental organization concerned with global health, the World Health Organization (WHO), plays an important role in convening states, providing them reliable information, and providing expert public health advice.

The WHO, however, must itself rely on the goodwill of states to achieve a consensus on global health action. The BRICS can fulfill this role perhaps better than any other multilateral intergovernmental forum.

For example, in responding to health emergencies and outbreaks, WHO must work with member states to ensure that they are well informed and cognizant of their responsibilities and obligations under international law and to which they made political commitments. This cooperation is key to ensuring that states and non-state humanitarian partners deploy effective pre-existing measures, such as the Minimum Initial Service Package for reproductive health during emergencies, to protect women and children.

In the longer term, WHO must work with countries to assist them in developing strong, resilient health systems that are accessible to all people within their reach, including migrants, unaccompanied children, refugees, asylum-seekers, and other forcibly displaced populations.

WHO has developed a toolkit to help countries assess the readiness of their health systems to cope with such health crises. It has been successfully rolled out in several countries to date, but needs to be extended to all countries that need it.

The BRICS are ideally positioned to influence the prioritization of building and strengthening health systems on the global health agenda and in WHO’s work. The BRICS have time and again reiterated their concern about weak health systems. Health systems are the backbone of the actions governments take to protect their peoples’ health.

A concerted effort to make strengthening health systems a global priority undertaken by the BRICS must be heard and acted upon by all governments.

Similarly, to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the BRICS have the potential to drive global concern not only for health, but for its social determinates.

SDG3 focuses on health, but health is critical to all the SDGs, including, for example, climate change (SDG13). Already, the BRICS have both in words and in deeds shown leadership in the effort to combat the adverse effects of climate change on human health.

Building blocks

The BRICS are some of the most affected countries. Although throughout history the BRICS have contributed negligibly per capita to the release of greenhouse gases that cause climate change, they are among the most burdened by the adverse effects of climate change on human health. Air pollution and environmental deterioration have reached unprecedented levels in some of the largest BRICS cities.

The effects of global environmental impacts on human health are well-recognized. For example, all of WHO’s member states are parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which in the first paragraph of its first article identifies the adverse effects of climate change as a threat to human health.

In each of these examples, the BRICS can play a crucial role in creating consensus among their five member states and then in galvanizing the consensus of the larger international community behind them.

In addition, the BRICS can serve as a platform for the exchange of experience and best practices in global public health. Again, WHO can and should work with the BRICS to draw upon their experiences. The BRICS offer leading examples of how to establish disease surveillance systems that can be used in low and middle income countries, responding to outbreaks and health emergencies that effect large populations, and in dealing with new health challenges ranging antimicrobial resistance to affordable access to quality medicines.

Finally, the BRICS provide an opportunity to expand our understanding of global health to take into consideration traditional medicine that plays such an important role in some of the BRICS countries.

The diversity of the BRICS and their commitment to improving the standard of living of their people make them an important multilateral forum for encouraging cooperation.

The BRICS can be the building blocks for a healthier future, helping the international community to confront the increasingly complex challenges to global public health.

Dr. Flavia Bustreo is Italy’s Candidate for Director-General of the World Health Organization. She is current Assistant-Director-General of the WHO on special leave.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the publisher's editorial policy.