Analysis | A call to action: The Georgetown Symposium on Global Health Diplomacy

Matthew Carvalho

Georgetown University students Matthew Carvalho, Abigail Corrao, and Iman Ibrahim meet with Assistant Secretary for Global Affairs Loyce Pace at the World Health Assembly in Geneva.
Left to right: Georgetown University students Matthew Carvalho, Abigail Corrao, and Iman Ibrahim meet with Assistant Secretary for Global Affairs Loyce Pace at the World Health Assembly in Geneva. (Image: courtesy of author.)

As a result of the past two years, academic and professional institutions around the world are increasingly interested in preventing disease, promoting health, and advancing scientific discoveries to limit the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic and other public health emergencies. Humanitarian crises of great complexity and public health emergencies of international concern (PHEIC), among other interdisciplinary issues in these fields, necessitate a multifaceted and cross-collaborative diplomatic response that extends outside traditional medical or political intervention.

In fighting the SARS-CoV-2 virus across the planet, the public health community has become terrifyingly aware of how gaps in diplomacy can facilitate disaster. Epidemiologists and health security experts have spent the last two decades constructing and revising pandemic preparedness plans, only for political structures to systematically break them down. In learning from the current PHEIC, specialists from a variety of disciplines are recognizing the fractures within global health governance and how their field might be actively contributing to the problem.

Last month, global health diplomats convened the seventy-fifth World Health Assembly (WHA), the world’s highest body for setting health policy. They introduced the framework of a new pandemic preparedness treaty to conquer future PHEICs, as well as an overhaul of the International Health Regulations (2005) (IHR) to determine what went wrong. Both of these actions are flawed in concept and purpose; rewriting international regulations offers little gain if they are ignored in the future just the same as the old. The pandemic, followed by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, has brought international law to a standstill. Authoritarian powers now act with impunity and disregard the sustainable development frameworks created by the United Nations and other international organizations.

To avoid disasters in a post-COVID world, diplomats must take a hard look at the philosophy surrounding global health diplomacy. Individuals in power need to acknowledge the interconnectedness of people and their planet, and these actors must recognize that planetary health diplomacy, via the objectives outlined by the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), is the only path forward to mend the gaps in global governance highlighted by the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

The United Nations developed the SDGs in the 2000s to pursue a rapid development agenda, including zero hunger (Goal 2), reduced inequalities (Goal 10), and ocean conservation (Goal 14) by 2030. The SDGs are based on three core ideas: environmental protection, social inclusivity, and economic growth. Each of these concepts is interconnected with each other and with global health. For example, specialists cannot end hunger and reduce inequalities unless they recognize that these objectives are also vital to the advancement of population health, and vice versa.

Planetary health diplomacy accounts for these interconnections; therefore, it is an effective governance model. In applying this mentality, global health diplomats can approach the SDGs in a comprehensive rather than piecemeal way. By realizing the ways in which economists, lawyers, doctors, policymakers, nurses, and diplomats must see once-segregated areas of health as one, all parties can coordinate targeted responses to PHEICs that surpass the strength of current international agreements.

One key way to move the global health agenda forward is to properly educate students on current global health diplomacy models, in the hope of one day advancing WHA and its attending specialists to the newly emerging planetary health diplomacy model. Collaboration between academic and institutional departments will allow for the timely interdisciplinary instruction required to support and treat people of all backgrounds in crisis. For example, Georgetown’s School of Health, which the university launched last Friday, July 1, serves as the perfect opportunity to highlight interdisciplinary voices needed to mend gaps across the health sector through medical, social, legal, economic, and political lenses. Students within the current School of Nursing & Health Studies hope to capitalize on this change to frame the School of Health as a leader in health governance and as one of the first undergraduate institutions in this field.

To bring the next generation together on the global health diplomacy stage, students of the new school have spent months building a network among peer institutions, expanding past Washington, D.C., and identifying ways to bring this global community together. Using this network, these students plan to host the Georgetown Symposium on Global Health Diplomacy, to convene November 11 to 13 this coming fall, with other students and advising faculty from the United States and abroad to identify what the future of global health diplomacy education will look like in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, and how we as students can blaze our own trail forward in this field. The goal of this three-day conference is to ultimately form a youth delegation to WHA, which will follow in the footsteps of current health leaders and head to Geneva in May 2023.

The pandemic impacted students in unique ways. They acknowledge the need for global health governance, seeing it as an act of public service to enter this employ. We encourage the wider diplomatic community to support the symposium this fall, thereby positioning the next generation to lead in their wake. Investment in the next generation of global health diplomats and sponsorship of new youth initiatives will catalyze the future of global health; these students and scholars will one day sit where current world leaders are now.

The COVID-19 pandemic, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and other subsequent emergencies have illuminated gaps within international health conventions, and the future generation must direct our passion for this work toward mending the fissures wrought by these threats to human systems across the globe. Rising global health diplomats have systemic issues and flaws to face within international health governance, but their current understanding of these processes and acknowledgement of their own capacities are what will provide hope for health security. In witnessing the effects of climate change, infectious disease outbreaks, and inequitable health systems, while also directly suffering the consequences, emerging diplomats recognize the shifts needed and know the obstacles they will face. They also see the urgency of these planetary health issues, and therefore know that the following generations will not have a chance for prosperity without dramatic change.

The globe may still be living in the shadow of existing health calamities; however, planetary health diplomacy shines a light for the future of prosperity, and the upcoming leaders in this field will pave the path for successful achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals, as well as holistic prosperity for all people around the world.

Our symposium, and the consequent youth delegation to the World Health Assembly, will foster these advancements in global health, and illuminate that new programs and institutions, such as those led by Georgetown’s School of Health, are crucial to ensuring diplomatic training for students across educational fields.

I look forward to welcoming you all to Georgetown for our symposium this November.

Matthew Carvalho is an Accelerated Master’s in Global Health candidate at Georgetown University. He is pursuing a Certificate in Diplomatic Studies and a Certificate in Refugees, Migration, and Humanitarian Emergencies. If you are interested in the symposium, please contact him at mpc129@georgetown.edu for more information.

Read more from The Diplomatic Pouch about ISD’s case studies on global health diplomacy:

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Institute for the Study of Diplomacy

Georgetown University's Institute for the Study of Diplomacy brings together diplomats, other practitioners, scholars, and students to explore global challenges